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The Mysterious, Murky Story Behind Soy-Sauce Packets

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Even though the soy-sauce packet’s origin is an unsolved mystery, the story of how it became popular is not.

That’s the story of Howard Epstein, who, as the founder of the dominant soy-sauce brand Kari-Out, is seen as the ambassador of packaged American soy sauce.

Epstein became interested in food packaging because his father manufactured the long, flimsy plastic packaging for freezer pops. Epstein's first venture into his father’s trade was a popcorn-packaging business, which he bought for $5,000 over 50 years ago.

That business failed to gain traction, and Epstein, now 81, was looking for a change when one of his father’s salesmen, who sold tea bags, suggested he consider the soy-sauce-packaging business. In 1964, Epstein founded Kari-Out, and he says he arrived to the industry right as it was becoming commercially viable. He ran his new business out of the popcorn factory he owned.

At first, Epstein was regarded with suspicion, primarily because he, a Jew from the Bronx, was different from most people in the industry. “No one trusted me because it was the old times. The Chinese ran the business,” Epstein says. His attempts to sell his packets to wholesalers were met with apathy and even cold-shouldered silence. “I had one potential customer,” he says. “I went in and asked him if he would be interested in selling my soy sauce. He didn’t speak. He never talked to me.”

But Epstein persisted, and his familiarity with freezer-pop packaging proved helpful in solving the problems with soy-sauce packets at the time: They leaked and they were too flimsy. “The only difference is a freezer pop has a much longer bag,” Epstein says.

Epstein’s break came in the form of affordable air travel, which went mainstream in the 1970s. To serve the newly airborne hordes of families and businessmen, airlines began offering prepared foods onboard. Epstein found his first major foothold as the primary provider of soy sauce for these in-flight meals.

Cheap airfare also allowed Epstein to travel the country in search of new customers. He was scouting at a time when Chinese takeout joints were becoming as commonplace as nail salons and convenience stores in strip malls around the country.  “Chinese business was growing at this time because China was not as business-friendly,” he says. “People were leaving China and coming into the United States to open a restaurant and cook. The industry was booming.”

He soon built up a widespread network of customers, and Kari-Out’s products appeared in the Chinese restaurants across the country. Now, he estimates that Kari-Out has a 50 percent market share. The company’s soy-sauce packets remain ubiquitous—Epstein recalls finding Kari-Out packets at a concession stand in rural Iceland a couple years ago. “We’ve survived 50 years,” Epstein says. “I never get sick of Chinese food or soy sauce.”

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