Building a 21st-century family business: an interview with the Leung family from The Woks of Life
Sharing traditional recipes is a great way to preserve family legacy and bring generations closer together. But what happens when you take that concept and build an entire business around it?
The Leung family – Bill, Judy, Sarah, and Kaitlin – have done just that with their cross-generational food blog, The Woks of Life — a business centered around heritage, family bonding, and cooking for all learning levels. We asked Sarah to share more about their collaborative process, what it’s like working with your parents and sister, how they balance business with family time, and her best advice for anyone looking to mix the two!
How did The Woks of Life begin?
We started the blog back in June 2013. I had recently graduated from college and was living at my parents’ house in the suburbs while my parents were halfway across the world on temporary work assignment in Beijing. My sister was in college in Philadelphia at the time, so we were all pretty far away from one another — and from one another’s cooking!
We’ve all always shared a love of food. During those months apart, we found that food was usually our main topic of conversation during family group chats and Skype sessions. My sister and I also realized that, while we cooked all the time, we had no idea how to make many of the traditional Chinese dishes we grew up with. The blog really began as a way for us to record those family recipes for ourselves and future generations of our family.
We all contributed recipes from the beginning — my parents’ favorite easy weeknight dinner recipes, special-occasion dishes that we made at holidays every year, and new recipes we were experimenting with and deemed “good enough to blog.”
Since then, we’ve published over 1,000 recipes, covering authentic Chinese cuisine from dim sum and Cantonese classics to the Shanghainese cuisine from my mom’s side, to familiar Chinese American takeout favorites, and the Sichuan and Northern Chinese dishes gaining popularity outside of China. We also love sharing whatever recipes our family loves to cook, Asian or otherwise, from pasta to dessert and everything in between.
Before we started The Woks of Life, we were readers of other food blogs and knew that bloggers were making a full-time income with their blogs. So while it began as more of a freeform passion project, we definitely started treating it more like a business as it began to grow. We put more structure around our posting schedule (new content goes out every other day!), streamlined our writing/editing workflow, and created a dedicated Slack channel for the blog, so we weren’t mixing family conversation with shop talk.
We love that your readers really get to know each family member and their cooking style. How do you create content together and divvy up business roles and tasks?
Every member of the family has some pretty great skills to contribute, so we’ve landed on a good separation of roles.
I recently started working on the blog full time, so I serve as photographer, videographer (when we do videos, which we’re trying to do more of), WordPress administrator/maker of posts, last-round copy editor, and the blog’s main point of contact for new business partnerships.
My sister, who’s great at social media, handles our Instagram account, Facebook, and Twitter. She’s also a great writer, so she’s the first-round copy editor on all our posts.
My dad is kind of our CFO/CTO, keeping track of our finances and making sure everything’s running smoothly on the site with our hosting, plugins, etc.
My mom is our resident Pinterest expert (she’s very proud of our 9 million monthly viewers!) and also keeps track of food trends to make sure we’re always on top of those.
Aside from those individualized roles, everyone tests and writes their own recipes, and we bounce ideas off each other to get each recipe to the point where it’s ready to blog. As for the blogging — we usually get together for big blogging blowout weekends, where we just cook and photograph a dozen recipes in two days, once every 1-2 months.
How do your AdThrive ads play a role in your business strategy?
AdThrive ads are a very significant part of our overall business strategy. We’ve loved working with our account manager, Megan, to optimize our ad placements and maximize revenue while also balancing our user experience. We’ve also really loved the resources AdThrive provides for SEO and other best practices to boost our overall traffic.
What advice do you have for someone looking to start a site or business with family?
Starting a blog is a huge undertaking and definitely not for the faint of heart. We’ve learned that it takes a lot of perseverance. Taking it all on with one’s immediate family is not for everyone — it can definitely be challenging!
One big piece of advice is to be patient with one another and to treat your family members as business partners and colleagues when discussing business-related matters. It can be all too easy to fall into familiar or lazy patterns of communication with family members, which can cause conflict.
Another important piece of advice is to draw a clear line between work and family time. Another easy trap to fall into is to talk about work any time you’re together, and forget to relax and just be a family. Building structure into how you work together is super important — create a separate channel of communication for business-related discussion and make sure everyone has a clear role to play. Plus, when it’s after hours, don’t talk about work!
What are some of the best things to come out of running a family business?
The best thing to come out of running a family business is seeing how our family’s collective work is affecting the lives of other families — bringing them closer to their heritage, helping them save money by cooking instead of ordering takeout, helping them connect with their adopted children or new in-laws…the list goes on! It has been so rewarding to hear the amazing feedback we get from readers who thought these recipes were lost forever and were able to rediscover them.
Another great thing to come out of the blog is the fact that we have actually done what we set out to do, and that’s to record our family’s personal culinary history for future generations.
We don’t just add to the blog — we continue to use it ourselves. We refer back to it all the time to make weeknight dinners and entertain friends and family. I love that I can just whip up my sister’s recipe for Green Goddess Pesto without having to ask her what’s in it, or my mom’s Braised Pork Belly recipe. My sister and I are no longer clueless when it comes to the recipes we grew up eating, and that’s a huge win!
Thank you for taking the time to share the story of your business and how your family connects through cooking, Sarah. Not only are we feeling super inspired, but we’re hungry now too!