Q&A: Coffee with a side of calm
May 26, 2021
Before she started coffee company Amasu, Xiao Zhang (Kellogg ‘20) worked with pharmaceutical companies for years but sought a career change in hopes she could make an impact on people’s health. She ended up at Kellogg School of Management, where Amasu started. The products at Amasu combine caffeinated beverages with herbs to promote immunity, digestion and calmness. The Daily sat down with Zhang to learn more about Amasu’s beginnings, her goals and running a start-up during a pandemic.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The Daily: How did Amasu start?
Zhang: I actually started the company while I was at Northwestern, then I was selected to be part of the Zell Entrepreneurship Program, which is a pre-accelerator for a lot of Kellogg students. You get funding, you get access to this great network and to really work on your business. Through The Garage, through Wildfire, I continued building on the business, and today, we have products that are available on our website. We’re a direct-to-consumer company and we’re available on some other channels as well. Ultimately, our mission is to help people live a healthier life and a more natural life, and the way we do that is with natural herbal botanicals, like plant-based formulas that are incorporated into things that people use on a regular basis — in this case, premium specialty coffee.
The Daily: How did you come up with the idea for herbal coffee?
Zhang: I was really thinking about where were the gaps that existed in the marketplace, and my knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry. There’s a lot of benefits in pharmaceuticals and medicine, but I also grew up with a lot of herbal products. In our household, we used a lot of traditional Chinese medicine. And so when I came to Northwestern, I saw there’s a lot of people that may be interested in it, but they may not understand how to incorporate TCM into their life. And so it seemed like I was in a unique position, given my background (and) my own kind of experiences to do that.
The Daily: Does it taste any different than normal coffee?
Zhang: Not at all. That was actually a big question for us when we were developing the product. We were thinking through, ‘okay, how do we actually figure out if customers want the taste of herbs or don’t want the taste of herbs? What are we trying to maximize for?’ When we were doing taste test sampling, people really liked the taste of the coffee. We have different herbal formulas that when paired with the coffee, they do taste slightly different, and so with herbs, it can taste a bit bitter. The digestive formula tastes slightly more bitter than the other formulations, just because of the herbs that are in them, but overall customers like the flavor, and so we’re trying to optimize for a delicious product.
The Daily What kind of reception has Amasu received so far?
Zhang: We’re an early startup. We’re still trying to find scale, trying to grow our customer base and really trying to find our most loyal fans. We’ve had a lot of great feedback from our customers. Our Amazon reviews are really good, we have, like, 4.95 stars on Amazon. Granted, our customer base is smaller, but that’s a great sign that people really like our coffee.
The Daily: What has it been like running the business during the pandemic?
Zhang: It hasn’t been bad. It’s given me a space to really find a new rhythm and to work virtually. I think we’ve been able to work with people that maybe we wouldn’t have a chance to if everything had to be done in person.
The Daily: What’s next for Amasu?
Zhang: We’re just trying to really make people aware of our mission and what we’re hoping to bring to customers, especially thinking about health and what that means. We’re just trying to help people, provide them products that maybe they haven’t really thought about. Part of the pillars of our company is really around that scientific basis and scientific approach. We’re not just randomly throwing a bunch of herbs that we think makes sense. It is part of traditional Chinese medicine. For example, our immune support, that formula is called Jade Windscreen. It’s been around for like 750 years, and so there’s scientific research behind it, rigor behind it, and our products are certified organic as well.
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