PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA
Linh Tran grew up in Vung Tau, Vietnam, a small coastal city southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, far from the mountainous Central Highlands where many ethnic minorities reside. She was aware that these groups are disproportionally poor—making up only 14% of the population, yet 68% of the country’s impoverished people—and she wanted to help.
But it wasn’t until she was studying international development and economics more than 8,000 miles away at Brown University in Rhode Island that Tran and classmate and Hong Kong native Myron Lam conceived a way to circle back to Tran’s homeland and bridge that gap.
That bridge is X.O.I, a Boston-based beverage company with a unique twist on local: highlighting ingredients indigenous to both Vietnam and New England as means to help farmers in Vietnam, to introduce a Southeast Asian “super fruit” to U.S. consumers, and to bring local ingredients into the mix.
X.O.I brings the gac—a coconut-sized spiny fruit that thrives in the climate of Southeast Asia and is naturally packed with nutrients—to the U.S. via a juice line. Gac is mostly known for its red, fleshy pulp and seeds that are used to color xoi gac, a sticky rice dish served at Vietnamese wed-dings and festivals, and in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine for skin healing purposes. But thanks to X.O.I, it is now also providing ethnic minorities with a fair trade opportunity to address ethnic inequality.
X.O.I is a play on the Vietnamese word xoi, meaning blessings of health and wellness—a perfect fit for a socially conscious company promoting nutrient-rich products.
The X.O.I juice line, launched in March 2016, features three flavors: Apple Chamomile Cider; Beets & Berries; and Ginger Rosemary Pear. While the star of the show is gac, comprising most of the content, don’t look to the fruit for a huge flavor punch. It lends an understated earthy tone to each, but more importantly, infuses the juice with large doses of lycopene, beta-carotene and other nutrients that contribute to heart, reproductive, skin and eye health, as well as boost immunity, Tran says. Meanwhile, the New England herbs, fruits and vegetables complement the gac to give each juice its unique flavor profile.
The story of X.O.I can be traced to the summer of 2013, when at the end of their sophomore year Tran and Lam traveled to Vietnam—thanks to a small grant from Brown—to study how ethnic inequality and injustice affects people of the fertile but underdeveloped Central Highlands, an area lacking infrastructure and access to a large-scale market. They lived with a host family in the Ede ethnic minority community, and saw firsthand challenges such as low agricultural prices, difficulty finding accessible markets and doing business indirectly through multiple layers of buyers.
“While we were living with them, we realized they have a lot of challenges in agriculture, especially because they live in an area that’s geographically harder to get to and don’t have access to a lot of information,” Tran says. “It’s not like in the U.S., where farmers have more say.”
During their stay, their host mother introduced them to the gac fruit, which grew on vines in her back yard, and asked if they could find a way to bring it to the U.S. market.
“I knew about it, but I didn’t know how healthy it is,” Tran says, noting she thought its novelty was all about its bright red pigment used to color the rice dishes she’d eaten at wed-dings and events.
The following summer, Tran and Lam traveled back to the Ede community through the support of two Brown fellow-ships to research the health benefits and harvesting of the gac fruit. For this phase, they talked to scientists who study the fruit at the University of California, Davis, and the University of New South Wales in Australia, as well as with agriculture experts in Vietnam. They also secured a manufacturing partner in Vietnam to process the gac fruit into a purée and export it to the U.S. Meanwhile, they launched a crowdfunding campaign that surpassed the grant match requirement and netted them startup money for X.O.I.
By October 2015, they decided that a juice would be the best way to bring the fruit to the U.S. market. “It’s the easiest way to taste and understand [the gac fruit],” Tran says, noting that the juicing trend in the U.S. provides a good market opportunity for gac. “We started out wanting to help farmers. The product came way later.”
The three flavor profiles emerged after four months of recipe development and focus-group testing. “I used to live in Brighton and we would sit in my kitchen and just juice with my little juicer,” she recalls.
The X.O.I juice line, now run solely by Tran after a mutual decision to part ways, is produced out of Dorchester’s CommonWealth Kitchen and officially launched in March 2016 following a fair trade model. After initial help from Tran, the farmers grow the gac as a co-op, acting as suppliers. To date, X.O.I partners with more than a dozen farmers in the Ede community and Tran is working to bring more on board.
With the exception of the gac fruit, the other ingredients are culled from New England, for which Tran looks mostly to the Boston Public Market and local farmers markets.
For example, for the Apple Chamomile Cider, the apples are sourced from Red Apple Farm in Phillipston, Massachusetts, and the maple syrup from Richardson Farm Maple or Smith Maple Crest Farm in Vermont. The berries in Beets & Berries come from Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Rose’s Berry Farm in Connecticut and Fresh Meadows Farm in Carver.
It was important to keep the other ingredients local, Tran says, at first for the logistical ease of buying on a small scale and then as part of the brand as a complement to the social mission of the company. “Our customers love it,” Tran says. “And the only non-local ingredient is helping farmers in Vietnam. People who shop at farmers markets are very conscious about what they buy.”
Next up from X.O.I: Look for a 100% gac fruit oil for skin health sometime in 2017.
Almost a year into the business, Tran is pleased with the accomplishments in both her native and chosen homes. In Vietnam, ethnic minority farmers are getting paid directly for harvesting the gac fruit; in the U.S., consumers have access to the nutritionally robust fruit paired with local ingredients, while knowing they are helping to bolster a fair trade enterprise abroad.
For a complete list of where to find X.O.I. and a link to the online store, visit xoicompany.com
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.