Vincent Kitirattragarn was just trying to host a pop-up when a very different business idea presented itself. While preparing a lettuce wrap for the meal, his roommates kept sneaking into the kitchen to eat coconut chips for the dish right out of the pan. A light went off in Kitirattragarn’s head: he should sell the coconut chips.
It wasn’t an easy sell immediately. Kitirattragarn took his chips to a market at a church where people were selling things like artisanal jams, and people couldn’t wrap their heads around how they should eat coconut chips on their own.
“I had to create my pitch from scratch,” says Kitirattragarn, “which was: coconut chips are a healthy snack. You can eat it as a snack or you can use it as a topping for salads and ice cream and baked goods. Then it's got benefits of coconut oil.”
Customers were familiar with coconut water, and coconut oil’s fame was on the upswing. Kitirattragarn used the coconut’s nutritional qualities to sell the snack as functional as well as delicious. Kitirattragarn, a Thai-American, started producing the coconut chips in Thailand where they’re grown, along with the company’s next big product, sticky-rice chips. He’d been inspired to make them himself after passing through the Bangkok airport and trying a sample of them at a snack kiosk. He noticed a lot of people were buying them, and loved the snack, too.
“I thought they had that amazing texture, like a crispy, crunchy, savory texture that you get from an extruded snack like Cheetos, but this wasn't extruded, it was a whole food,” says Kitirattragarn.
Today, Dang sells five different flavors of the sticky-rice chip. The savory seaweed iteration won the affection of model Chrissy Teigen, who tweeted her approval of the company’s savory seaweed sticky-rice chips.
“THESE ARE A DELIGHT and I’m not being paid. Just sharing the joy,” Teigen posted to her millions of followers.
It wasn’t the company’s first celebrity endorsement. Kourtney Kardashian posted about the company in the early days of Instagram. “That crashed our website,” says Kitirattragarn.
As Americans continued to fall for the Thai snacks, Dang continued to grow. The company’s operations in Thailand have created hundreds of jobs. Stateside, Kitirattragarn has more than 14 employees working on bringing the company’s coconut chips, sticky-rice chips, Dang bars to even more people.
Watch: How to Crack a Coconut
Kitirattragarn is following in the entrepreneurial spirit of his family. His grandparents left Chaozhou, China for Thailand and built a new life for themselves in their new home. Despite having little education, his grandmother started a lumber company and then became a significant real estate holder in Bangkok.
“She basically had to hustle her way, being an immigrant entrepreneur in Thailand,” says Kitirattragarn. “They actually established a book of Thai Chinese business leaders, and she was the only woman in the entire book," says Kitirattragarn, “but she learned to hustle. She ended up starting a lumber company, then ended up becoming a pretty significant real estate holder in Bangkok, before it really started expanding.
"She basically had to hustle her way, being an immigrant entrepreneur to Thailand, and they actually established a book of Thai-Chinese business leaders, and she was the only woman in the entire book out of a few dozen big league guys in suits. During that time she experienced tons of sexism, but she held through.”
Kitirattragarn’s parents went to school in Thailand, then to graduate school in the United States. After graduation They took on the same challenge as their family and started a company in their new home. They imported silk flowers made in Thailand at a factory owned by Kitirattragarn’s grandmother. Today, Kitirattragarn’s brothers and sisters help their father with a new company making candles in Thailand and selling them here in the U.S. to places like Pottery Barn.
“There's this common thread of us kind of moving to a place, and then starting a company from scratch,” says Kitirattragarn. “I feel like I'm really just continuing that.”