Mr. Mak's quest to bring an ancient Chinese medicine drink into more American homes

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Ginger and ginseng broth, a 'novel but ancient' beverage by Mr. Mak's

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It takes three hours to simmer a traditional Chinese bao, or plant broth. Based in New York City’s Chinatown, Mr. Mak’s wants to be a convenience solution for Asian-American households that grew up drinking it, and an approachable entry point for a wider audience.

The Chinese version of ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ goes something like ‘man cannot live for more than 100 days without ginger,’ a proverb that the founders of beverage company’s Mr. Mak’s​ credits as one of its foundations. Hence, a ginger bao ​(a slowly simmered plant broth) is to the ancient Chinese what apple cider vinegar switchel​ is to North America’s early European settlers.

With the latter experiencing a renaissance among health conscious consumers, as well as mainstream consumer interest in plant-based medicinal cultures such as Ayurveda in the age of information, Mr. Mak’s CEO Frances Mak told FoodNavigator-USA that the timing is right for her bao​ beverage, Ginbao, to hit the market. It has been on store shelves for about six weeks.

“Inherently, in a cultural way, I think the product is really relevant,” ​Mak said, tying the concept of plant broth to the overall trend in preventative measures—such as "using edible food to heal"​—that is sweeping US consumers.

Branding the ancient bao ​for today's world

Before taking the plunge into the food and beverage industry this year, Mak worked in the fashion industry for 20 years, including a role as J.Crew’s design director for leather goods, working directly with the fashion giant’s CEO Mickey Drexler.

“I learned so much from him, I walked out of there with like a ‘college degree in business,’ even though I actually studied art,” ​Mak laughed. She helms her family-run start-up, named after her father, together with her brother, who is CFO, out of a Chinatown office.

She said that without her design experience, trying to build the Mr. Mak's brand and company would’ve been “insurmountable.”​ The siblings partnered with Werner Design Werks​, the masterminds behind Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day’s iconic look, to create what Mak called a balanced message that would respectfully adapt ginger bao to modern tastes and not look like what Mak called "jumping on the ancient superfood bandwagon.” 

The company is named after Frances' father, Mr. Mak, who rediscovered ginger broth when he was 60 as a way to restore his health.

“Our job is to think how to make alternative, complimentary or traditional Chinese medicine into a more accessible space, because we believe in it,”​ she said. “Even as a [Chinese-American], when I first walked into an acupuncture office, it can feel foreign and intimidating.”

The result is a line bottled in sleek glass bottles, retailing for around $4.99 for each 13.9 fl oz bottle, with a geometric-print decorated sleeve. An ode to the beverage’s Chinese roots is reflected in romance text, telling Mak’s father’s American dream story and how the traditional beverage played a pivotal role in restoring the now 68-year-old’s health.

Inside is a slow-brewed concoction base of organic ginger and ginseng puree mixed with other ingredients depending on which of the three longbrew varieties: Original (lemon juice), Harmonizing Queen Bee Ginbao (honey and lemon juice), and Energizing Dragonwell Ginbao (with green tea).

The route to market

Mr. Mak’s is aiming wide, focusing on the ever-growing health and wellness-conscious American consumer. Before this year’s Expo East (where Mr. Mak himself made an appearance), Mr. Mak’s was sold in two stores. Today its products can be found in 25 stores in New York City.

Shelves that do stock up Mr. Mak’s beverages, at the moment, are natural channel, higher-end boutique retailers such as Forager’s and Sunac. There’s some exposure from the foodservice sector too—Ginbao is stocked in all New York City Van Leeuwen Ice Cream locations.

“We’re a small company so we have less leverage,”​ Mak said. “Our biggest barrier was not having a distributor, which I thought was interesting. I thought it would be a resistance to newness, but most retailers didn’t want to work with us yet because we don’t have a distributor.”

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