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Inspiring Conversations with Kenneth Mao of Ful

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kenneth Mao.

Hi Kenneth, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I’m one of those incredibly lucky people who can say without a doubt that everything I’ve ever done, every place I’ve experienced, every conversation I’ve had, and every friend I’ve made has led me to where I am today. My passion to help people discover, rekindle, and nurture a path towards their version of a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is what gets me up in the morning, what keeps me going when things are crazy, and what drives me to constantly learn and improve myself. And all of that is what drove me to start FUL.

My professional background for over a decade was in the education space. When I moved to St. Louis to get my MBA at Wash. U, the goal was always to continue to forge a path overseas in private education. At that time, I had discovered a love for food through travels in the previous year around the world, previously subconscious but now at the forefront of my mind. Coupled with a passion for fitness and health, I naturally started to want to learn more about to marry the two together. At first, it was just for personal enjoyment. I cooked all my own meals and regularly brought them to campus.

One day, a classmate asked if I had an extra meal to share, to which I happily obliged. 5 minutes later, he came back with $100 and asked me to cook for him every week for the rest of the year. Soon, word spread and I found myself cooking for over 15 classmates on a daily basis. Instead of taking a typical summer MBA paid internship, I decided to use the summer to pilot this healthy meal subscription business and I realized it was something I loved doing.

I loved cooking. But more importantly, I loved knowing that what I was doing could make a real difference in someone’s life. I’ve always thought that feeding people is a privilege. And using food as a vehicle for educating them about sustainable healthy eating became the mantra and driving force behind the evolution and growth of the company over the next three years.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
As with all small businesses and startups, nothing ever goes as planned. I lost my business partner three months before graduation and the kitchen/space we were planning to use. I ended up having to run the business out of my apartment where I bought three more fridges to hold food in the living room (I think I’m past the statute of limitations for the health department to do anything at this point…)

As a result, I had a difficult time trusting anyone else to help me with the business and I ended up making the mistake of trying to do everything myself for a good two years. If I could go back in time, I would have hired someone to help me in the kitchen immediately so that I could focus on growing the business and spending more time on sales opportunities. That said, I had always planned for our growth trajectory to be slow and purposeful.

Luckily, I was blessed to have made some really meaningful connections during my MBA and turned it into a fully built kitchen that I moved into after a year of working from home. That was our home for two years before we were forced to relocate, which ended up being less stressful than I initially thought.

And obviously COVID has been difficult for us, just like it has been for everyone else. We were on a great growth trajectory and COVID put us into a holding pattern. It could obviously be worse, but being stuck in limbo is not my favorite place to be.

As you know, we’re big fans of Ful. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about the brand?
What sets us apart from all other meal companies is the thoughtfulness of our meals and how we truly stand behind our philosophy of healthy, sustainable eating.

We’ve taken the time to craft all of our meals to be nutritionally equivalent, meaning every single thing you order from us always has the same amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and therefore calories. I think this is incredibly important when people are trying to learn to eat healthy but don’t want to have to spend tons of time looking at labels every day and having to input a new meal into whatever food tracker they choose to do. We also use our food as a visual teaching device for helping people learn how to eat out. We always tell our customers to flip out or meals onto a plate their first time eating and see what it looks like on a plate. Half the plate is veggies, quarter is meat, and the other quarter some kind of starch. We find this helps build a solid base of consistency and then they can add layers to their nutritional and food IQ based on their individual goals.

All of our meals are also gluten-free, dairy-free, added sugar-free, and preservative-free.

I’m also really proud that our meals reflect a global understanding of food. We don’t just cook typical “healthy stuff”. We try to introduce our customers to cuisines in all corners of the world but do it in a healthy, approachable way. We also try to keep the classics and listen to what our customers want, but jazz it up for them so it’s not your typical boring chicken and broccoli.

I’ve tested about 25 different meal companies in the last five years and I can say without ego but a lot of pride that our food stands leagues above them all.

Are there any books, apps, podcasts or blogs that help you do your best?
I love listening to the Dave Chang Show and Recipe Club on Spotify. It’s interesting to hear professional cooks talk about their different cooking philosophies.

My last read was called the Sacred Cow that I found fascinating in its discussion of how meat has been unfairly vilified. I think it’s an incredibly important read for people who really want to understand that meat isn’t the problem in today’s food consumption – there’s a lot more to it.

I also spend a lot of time on YouTube watching random cooking videos and nutritional resources just to keep a pulse on everything going on. I’m always taking in information and learning!

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Image Credits
Maddie Stringfellow

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