When you type in "jicama chips" (pronounced hee-ka-mah) into a search engine, you get several pages of recipes, accompanied by photogenic shots of the hand-prepared snack in elaborate presentations. One New York couple, avid snackers of homemade jicama chips themselves, saw this as a market opportunity, establishing a packaged brand that may soon takeover top search engine spots currently reserved for DIY-recipes.
In a little over a year, Xin Wang and Melissa Colella-Wang have brought JicaChips, their home-made and home-packaged jicama chips, beyond their local farmer’s market booth and into a wider network of retailers in the Hudson Valley area, as well as online through their store or Amazon Prime.
A serendipitous vacation
The Wangs have been looking for a healthy alternative to potato chips. In Xin’s words, the couple had an active lifestyle—they used to work out, they’ve done triathlons, but slowly Xin developed a habit of “coming home, watching TV, and eating potato chips.”
One day, while in Mexico for vacation, they were introduced to jicama, sometimes called the Mexican potato or yam bean. “We thought, this is amazing, we should make chips out of this!” Xin told FoodNavigator-USA. Back stateside, Melissa cooked some thinly sliced jicama with olive oil and seasoning. “I ate it while sitting in front of the TV, and it was amazing. We thought, wow, this might actually be something,” Xin added.
Not long after, the couple started selling their chips at a local farmer’s market. “People loved it, so from there, we started selling in a bunch of stores in the Hudson Valley area,” he said.
Familiarizing an ancient yet novel root
The name jicama comes from the Aztec word xicamatl. The root’s nutritional value, according to the USDA database entry, is rich with fiber. JicaChips likens the amount of fiber in one jicama root to 8 cups of cooked oatmeal.
Moreover, the root has two oranges worth of vitamin C, and two bananas worth of potassium, JicaChips reports. “There’s less than 100 calories per serving, 5g of fiber—we had the product tested by an independent laboratory to determine the nutritional contents it has,” Melissa said.
Raw and unseasoned, the root vegetable tastes like a cross between an apple and a potato. “Jicama is a newer vegetable for a lot of people, so we wanted to stick to flavors more familiar to a mass audience,” Melissa said. Examples include “Smoked BBQ” and “White Cheddar.” Another popular flavor, a nod to Xin’s Chinese heritage, is the “Spicy Soy Ginger” flavor. “We wanted to tick off typical boxes you see in the chip market, flavors people are able to recognize easily,” Melissa added.
Though their backgrounds aren’t in food, both Xin and Melissa have the business acumen and skills brought over from their past jobs—Xin’s background is in package design, while Melissa has experience with quality control from her time working in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.
But for the business aspects they’re still new to, like legal and finance, they were taken under the wings of mentors from AccelFoods, a competitive food accelerator for startups in the industry which the Wangs learned about from a local New York food LinkedIn group. “We started with the program back in February 2015—it’s roughly nine months, and it’s pretty much a boot camp or MBA program for food startups, it’s very hands-on,” Melissa said.
Researching and finding a co-packer, for example, was something that wasn’t easy until they participated in the program. “We’re the first company to use jicama as a processed product, and we were looking for a co-packer that is willing to learn with us,” Melissa said.
JicaChips has gained attention in food exhibitions such as Expo East, and big retailers, which can’t be disclosed yet, have showed interest. “We currently work from a home office, but we’re expanding,” Xin said. “For 2016, I think it’s going to be a good year for us. We’re concentrating on areas where jicamas are more ingrained in the diet,” he explained, adding that the West Coast is their next target market.