A Chinese Takeout, a Bronx Jewish Businessman & The Creation of the #1 Distributor of Popular Condiment

Who knew this began in The Bronx?!
Who knew this began in The Bronx?!

Here’s a fun story with Bronx history we found via The Atlantic about a Bronx Jewish businessman who was able to overcome some odds to become the top distributor of those little soy sauce packets we all know so well.

After all these years of soy sauce packets staring me in the face, little did I know this was the brainchild of a fellow Bronxite! Oh and did you know that soy sauce appears to go back as far as the year 160AD?

The Atlantic writes:

“Right now, whether you’re at work or at home, in a drawer somewhere near you is probably a packet of soy sauce—a squishy, likely clear pouch of transclucent saltiness left over from a late-night Chinese-takeout binge or a hurried workday lunch. These packets are remarkably common: In terms of sales, soy sauce is the third-most-popular condiment in the U.S., behind only mayonnaise and ketchup.

Even though the soy-sauce packet’s origin is an unsolved mystery, the story of how it became popular is not. That’s the story of Howard Epstein, who, as the founder of the dominant soy-sauce brand Kari-Out, is seen as the ambassador of packaged American soy sauce.

Epstein became interested in food packaging because his father manufactured the long, flimsy plastic packaging for freezer pops. Epstein’s first venture into his father’s trade was a popcorn-packaging business, which he bought for $5,000 over 50 years ago.

That business failed to gain traction, and Epstein, now 81, was looking for a change when one of his father’s salesmen, who sold tea bags, suggested he consider the soy-sauce-packaging business. In 1964, Epstein founded Kari-Out, and he says he arrived to the industry right as it was becoming commercially viable. He ran his new business out of the popcorn factory he owned.

At first, Epstein was regarded with suspicion, primarily because he, a Jew from the Bronx, was different from most people in the industry.

“No one trusted me because it was the old times. The Chinese ran the business,” Epstein says. His attempts to sell his packets to wholesalers were met with apathy and even cold-shouldered silence.

“I had one potential customer,” he says. “I went in and asked him if he would be interested in selling my soy sauce. He didn’t speak. He never talked to me.”

But Epstein persisted, and his familiarity with freezer-pop packaging proved helpful in solving the problems with soy-sauce packets at the time: They leaked and they were too flimsy. “The only difference is a freezer pop has a much longer bag,” Epstein says.

Cheap airfare also allowed Epstein to travel the country in search of new customers. He was scouting at a time when Chinese takeout joints were becoming as commonplace as nail salons and convenience stores in strip malls around the country. 

“Chinese business was growing at this time because China was not as business-friendly,” he says. “People were leaving China and coming into the United States to open a restaurant and cook. The industry was booming.”

He soon built up a widespread network of customers, and Kari-Out’s products appeared in the Chinese restaurants across the country. Now, he estimates that Kari-Out has a 50 percent market share. The company’s soy-sauce packets remain ubiquitous—Epstein recalls finding Kari-Out packets at a concession stand in rural Iceland a couple years ago.

“We’ve survived 50 years,” Epstein says. “I never get sick of Chinese food or soy sauce.” 

Read the full story over at The Atlantic: The Mysterious, Murky Story Behind Soy-Sauce Packets — How Chinese takeout, a Jewish businessman from the Bronx, and NASA-approved packaging have shaped the 50-year reign of a well-loved American condiment

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.