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When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, people flocked to the stores to buy necessities to weather the crisis. Items such as face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and peanut butter flew off the shelves in the U.S., and so did kimchi.

Sales of San Francisco-based Sinto Gourmet’s manufactured vegan kimchi and hot sauce shot through the roof, according to company founder and owner, Hyunjoo Albrecht.

“I didn’t expect this!” said Albrecht. “I thought people would buy only the food they considered necessities. The fact that kimchi was a necessity for so many people made me very happy.”

The company “started getting overwhelmed with orders,” but Albrecht  was able to increase production quickly and efficiently, in part, because she was well prepared for the pandemic.

“I’m from South Korea, and they had one of the first cases of COVID in January,” she said. “I paid close attention to what was going on in Korea and China, how it was developing, and how people were coping with it. I knew it would only be a matter of time before this pandemic would come to us.”

Because she started planning early, Albrecht was able to buy a few cases of masks and face shields, and she collected information about how to make sure her employees were healthy and how she should run her food business in a pandemic.

When shelter-in-place was announced on March 16th, Albrecht had a meeting with her employees and initiated a comprehensive protocol, including:

  • Checking everyone’s temperature every day;
  • Instituting daily employee meetings for health and safety check-ins;
  • Splitting employees into groups, and staggering the groups’ coffee and lunch breaks, also while self-distancing;
  • Changing seating arrangements so employees don’t sit across from one another; and
  • Disinfecting every surface a hand would touch—door knobs, switches, buttons, the microwave oven door, the cooler door, and a lot more—every 2 hours during the hours of operation.
  • Wearing masks and face shields, and of course washing hands “is a must.”

“I chase after them, and sometimes I wonder, ‘am I their boss or their mom,’ but I don’t want them to relax,” she said. “People didn’t really feel the sense of urgency, but then, more and more, they see the situation is getting really serious.”

“This city needs more than one kimchi brand!”

Albrecht started her business in 2009, when the housing market collapsed. She had been working as a chef in a catering company and made kimchi at home for herself and her friends.

“The catering company was so slow; they weren’t calling me for work anymore. I practically lost my job,” she said. “I told my friends, ‘I’ll make kimchi once a week together with other Korean foods,’ and you can pick it up after work.

Albrecht went to Rainbow Grocery to do some research, and back then, they only had one kimchi brand. She thought, “this city needs more than one kc brand.”  She spent one year doing preparing and doing research, and then she was ready to take the leap.

Albrecht searched for a commercial kitchen to start her business, but commercial kitchens have always been hard to come by in San Francisco, and as a food manufacturer, Albrecht would need plenty of space for storage and operations.

At the same time, warehouse space was inexpensive due to the recession, so Albrecht decided to “invest her life savings” and build her own commercial kitchen.

“SFMade helped me in many different ways.”

Over the years, SFMade has been a reliable resource for Sinto Gourmet, providing hands-on support and information at every stage of growth.

“SFMade has helped me in many different ways,” said Albrecht. “When I was looking for commercial space, they gave me information to help negotiate with the landlord about what other landlords in this neighborhood were charging.”

“They give me advice on employment, HR issues, and a lot of marketing support. I’m also part of a peer group that meets once every few months. Each business gets to talk about their experiences, and we tour their manufacturing facilities. I’ve also hired an intern through SFMade. They have been a lot of help.”

SFMade also helped Albrecht prepare for COVID.

“Pierre immediately started sending information, and I was able to put that information together with my research. I was very prepared for the pandemic. In June, I had my annual, third-party kitchen audit. The auditor was very impressed with how well we were implementing all the protocols.”