Watching Sue Zhou dance in a thumping Brooklyn warehouse, her endless energy is only eclipsed by her clear, unfettered joy. So, it makes sense that she uses this zest to fuel her new company, Byrdfood, which offers a savory take on granola, filled with plant-based, satisfying nutrition.
Though she was a bookworm growing up (outside the trees she climbed and hills she loved to roll down!), her passion for food was ingrained early: She grew up in a food-obsessed Chinese family, so she always deeply understood its importance, not only for nourishing the body, but soul, as well.
While she first became a lawyer before entering the wellness space, now the upbeat, focused and sharp entrepreneur is bringing this approach to her customers who enjoy the tasty treat. Plus, while food sits firmly in her focus, bringing sustainable and optimized business practices to her new venture also makes up a large part of her mission. Read on to learn more from this fun, brilliant food maven.
SBS: How did health and wellness play into your childhood?
Sue Zhou: I grew up in a big Chinese family in Shanghai, and then I moved to the U.S. when I was eight. My entire family has been obsessed with eating well for generations: My paternal grandparents live on a farm, so the chickens we ate were so free-range they sometimes hopped into the dining room during lunch! My mom's side of the family is filled with amazing chefs: Every meal is planned ahead to maximize the seasonal produce and the freshest seafood or meat from the market. I don't think we ever really had to use a freezer because my grandmother and aunties would shop and cook every day. I have no idea how most of them still worked full time on top of it all.
My family instilled in me the importance of food to feed our soul, as it's the way we all connect across generations and language barriers, and also is medicine for our bodies. Chinese cuisine is focused on using food as medicine to give your body the nutrients it needs. For example, we drank bone broth with ginger during the winter for warmth, and then cooling mung bean and lotus soup during the summer to fight heat/inflammation.
SBS: When did you start focusing on health and wellness?
Sue Zhou: I started running regularly when I was in college, honestly because my other girlfriends did it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that a long run helped to clear my head better than most activities.
I really started focusing more on exercising regularly (four or five times per week) after I started working (I went to NYU for undergrad and then Fordham University School of Law), because the first two years of my legal career was really tough mentally. I pretty much lived at the office and worked for a very difficult boss, so my escape was to duck out at lunch to get a workout in at the local Equinox. I loved the variety of different classes, started using weights for the first time, and these workouts gave me a sense of control over my life.
After having my first panic attack (at work, of course!), I realized that the tightness in my chest and my racing thoughts were actually due to anxiety manifesting physically. At this point, I doubled down on fitness efforts as a way to force myself out of the office. Eventually, I started focusing on the mental wellness aspect as well, a much harder thing for me given my family and cultural upbringing views mental health as a taboo topic and a sign of weakness. But I go to therapy regularly as a check in on myself (and don't feel like I'm broken when I go anymore, which is great). I also try to create space daily to meditate or journal, which helps to calm my naturally frenetic state.
I've chilled out a bit on the aggressive workout schedule, and don't beat myself up when I don't make it to the gym anymore. I just dance harder, and find other ways to prioritize wellness, since I think it's an ever-evolving process for everyone.
SBS: How would you describe Byrdfood in reference to other options? What does it taste like?
SZ: Byrdfood is a savory oat and seed cluster. By replacing the sugary syrup, you typically find in ‘healthy’ snacks with herbs and spices, we make fueling an active lifestyle simple, but never basic!
Byrdfood is addictively crunchy and savory, our flavors are Everything Bagel (think of all the seasonings on the outside), Spicy Pizza and Smokey Chipotle. Unlike other ‘healthy’ bars and snacks (which either have 10-plus grams of sugar or suspect sugar replacements), Byrdfood is naturally sugar free and made with real ingredients grown by mother nature. We focus on the combination of oats and seeds for a mixture of protein, fiber, healthy fats and complex carbs. Together this nutritional profile will leave you feeling satiated instead of still craving more food (hello, handful of almonds syndrome!). Byrdfood is made with gluten-free ingredients, does not contain nuts and it’s vegan, making it friendly for most people to eat.
SBS: What is your mission in creating Byrdfood?
SZ: My mission is to make healthy choices accessible while still fun and satisfying. Food is also the great equalizer (we all gotta eat!), so I can hire and grow this company to create positive change in our community. For example, open hiring practices is central to our mission. We only care about hiring eager awesome people who want an opportunity to work hard and have fun, we never judge by people's past.
SBS: How are your central mission points manifested in your business?
Byrdfood strives to be a thoughtfully run business where we measure our success through metrics beyond profit. We seek to be good for people and good for the planet. For example, we purposely avoided nuts in our ingredient list since they are more water and energy intensive than seeds to grow, but seeds still provide a ton of nutrients. We strive to keep sustainability, and being an agent of positive change, in the Byrdfood DNA. We make each business decision to maximize impact (not just to minimize cost).
If you look at the leadership of major food corporation, you may notice a distinct lack of diversity. As a female-founded and managed company, Byrdfood is a chance for us to shake up the food industry and show that you can build a profitable business and desirable brand while also trying to do as much good as possible at every step.
Lastly, we never want to lose sight of having fun. Because food can be such a source of joy, we want to be a delightful experience and also be a way to inject some whimsy into our customers' lives. Health food doesn't have to be punishing!
SBS: What was your professional path to Byrdfood?
SZ: I am a securities regulatory attorney, and I have been for eight years. Unlike most lawyers, I actually really loved my legal career. I left the traditional finance world to join a financial technology (fintech) startup focused on making investing/personal finance accessible for everyone, not just the wealthy one percent.
As the head of the legal department, I learned to communicate across different teams internally and also to advocate for our startup's mission externally. Learning to align everyone's interests has been an amazing skill. I also learned a lot about building a customer-centric business through my fintech startup experience. We worked to empower our users to get control over their personal finances, something they knew they should do for their financial health, but that felt unpleasant and intimidating. It’s similar to empowering consumers to make healthier dietary/lifestyle choices: Eating healthier is something most people know they should do, but they find it to be intimidating to tackle. My startup experience gave me a lot of insight into how helping people to make better choices for their health (financial or physical) takes patience and empathy, but can also be incredibly fulfilling!
SBS: How did you take the leap to becoming a business owner?
SZ: After five years in the fintech/personal finance world, helping to grow awesome companies, I knew I wanted to start my company and start to grown my own vision. I always felt a strong call to create a product that will help everyone make healthier food choices by providing a convenient option that allows busy consumers to fuel their body with nutrition, while still maintaining flavor and fun!
Practically speaking, through my startup experience, I knew first-hand what a big risk entrepreneurship is. So, I saved up enough money to live on (frugally) for 2 years, and also had enough savings for working capital for Byrdfood (production costs, commercial kitchen rental, various marketing/design costs, etc.). I am completely self-funded currently, and it's both scary and motivating! I also got the groundwork for Byrdfood ready while I was still working full time. I worked all the time (not super healthy), and while that was a really rough six months, working two full-time jobs also forced me to become very efficient with my time since I had little to spare.
SBS: What's your unique approach to nutrition? How did you come up with the unique ingredients in Byrdfood?
SZ: My approach to nutrition is to use food as fuel and medicine. I don't believe in following any diets or restrictions. Instead, I think we can work to listen harder to what our body is truly craving. Growing up in a family where food is a source of joy and connection, I can't imagine that denying yourself something joyful can be healthy. Instead, I would encourage being more thoughtful with nutrition choices.
SBS: What advice would you give to new business owners?
SZ: Always get external validation for your idea before you go all in! If you can get a stranger to pay you money for your product/service, then you really have something potentially amazing to pursue.
SBS: What foundational skills from your past careers have helped you?
SZ: Being strategic about prioritizing resources (time, money, personnel) to optimize for big picture goals is a huge one. The nature of a startup is limited resources, so being able to focus on the forest and not be bogged down by individual trees is very important.
Clear and effective communication is also a skill I use daily for Byrdfood, and I honed through my legal career. During my litigation days, it was all about getting two opposing sides to come to a mutually acceptable outcome. Most lawsuits settle in the US, and settlement is just getting consensus! When I joined the startup world as in-house counsel, my role shifted to aligning different teams to get to a goal together. I had to tailor my messaging to be relevant to the person/team I'm addressing, and also listen to their concerns/questions so that everyone ends up on the same page.
Of course, having a legal background helps me to tackle the various contracts that come up, but even though I am a lawyer, I still hired a law firm I trust to make sure that my company's most important documents (operating agreement, equity grants) are correct. So, learning to ask for help when I need it has also been a valuable skill!
SBS: What advice would you give to shoppers looking for unique/healthy products?
SZ: Shop locally! There are always new products to discover at farmer's markets or local shops, and you can support your local artisan/makers in the process. OurHarvest (for the NYCers) is a great online farmer's market that delivers to your door if you can't make it to the actual markets.
SBS: What's your own wellness routine? How has it evolved?
SZ: I used to be a boutique workout fiend, always looking for a new workout to make me sweat more or tone up. Since starting Byrdfood, I have very little free time, so I have shifted that precious time to pursuing things that bring me joy and fire up endorphins: nature hikes, dance parties with best friends, frolicking in the ocean. They all keep my body limber and my soul happy…very efficient!
SBS: What are some fitness, wellness and nutrition trends you love? Hate?
SZ: I love how much attention eating real food made with real ingredients is getting, basically cooking and eating the way my grandmothers have been for ages! Same for eating seasonally: It’s better for your wallet and also reduces carbon footprint.
Bone broth always cracks me up. I always just thought: It's soup! But, hey, you always feel better after a delicious bowl of broth made with love! So, everything that's old is new again!
I hate the idea of a cheat meal, which applies guilt and negativity to eating something tasty in moderation. Portion control and balance are both important, but there's never a need to make anyone feel bad for eating!
SBS: What are some examples of food as medicine that you count on?
SZ: Tea is a daily part of my life. Interestingly, Chinese people don't tend to drink iced beverages because we believe the temperature shock upsets your internal balance. Whatever the case may be, I drink hot (or warm) tea all day long because nothing soothes my digestion better, and also, I stay way more hydrated this way.
Let's also talk about nutrients and fiber: Eating real, whole foods that are minimally processed and consumed close to their natural state gives you a ton of nutrients that work in conjunction with each other to fuel your body. Instead of multi-vitamin pills, I eat as many colors as possible throughout the day to get as many different nutrients as possible. Whole ingredients also give you fiber, and both soluble and insoluble fiber help to do a world of wonder for your digestion and health, from keeping things regular, to regulating blood sugar (soluble fiber) and acting as prebiotic for the helpful probiotic bacteria.
Sue’s SBS Mantra: Be Bright! Life is short, and I am incredibly committed to living it as fully and brightly as possible!
The best, zaniest part of being Sue:
I am an off-the-chart extrovert and love being able to make friends in all kinds of settings, across language barriers, age gaps, etc. You'll be amazed at the wonderful connections you can make if you take some time to get to know someone!
Sue’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: Sweetgreen
Splurge Restaurant: O Ya
Nightlife Spot: Bushwick warehouses
Yoga Studio: Modo
Fitness Studio: Barry's Bootcamp
Fun Activity: Dancing!
Calming Activity: Reading…paper over Kindle please!
Online Resources: Google (haha!)
Books: Here Is New York by E.B. White and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert