Every milestone is worth celebrating, no matter how big or small. That’s why we partnered with Shane Co., purveyors of timeless fine jewelry, to highlight the unique stories of those celebrating special life moments. Whether they found success in following their passions or are embarking on the next chapter of their journey, we’ll learn how these individuals are commemorating each milestone — and the role their jewelry can play in marking these significant events. Ahead, a musician-turned-food justice activist shares how she went from playing DIY music shows to launching a successful online farmer’s market-meets-café, bringing nutritious and accessible food options to her community.
Long before Local Roots NYC founder Wen-Jay Ying started working with nearby farms to bring fresh, hyper-local food to New Yorkers, she was a fixture in the city’s DIY music scene of the early aughts and indie sleaze eras. She was often found playing her bass guitar or violin, or singing at one of the many underground venues that existed in the city at that time. So how did she go from being part of a 16-piece ska band (amongst a slew of others) to becoming a food justice-oriented small business owner?
All it took was a backstage conversation with the lead singer of her favorite band, who gave her a piece of advice that would go on to shape her entire life trajectory.
It was the mid-2000s, and Ying, then in her early 20s, was trying to envision what she wanted her future to look like. New Orleans was recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and she had been considering going there to help with the rebuild. After sharing her tentative plans with the singer after the show, he reminded her that while people often travel places to do this kind of work, looking to their own communities can sometimes be the most impactful. “He said that we often forget what our direct communities need — and that I should think about how I could help mine,” she says.
Soon after, she read an article about the supermarket decline in New York City and its overall lack of access to healthy, fresh food options, and it sparked something in her. “That hit me hard; food was never really something I thought about,” she says. “I asked myself: If a city this abundant can lack the most essential thing — access to high-quality food you can trust — how can I help make a difference?” It was then she realized her future was in the food space.
Ying got her start working with a local food justice nonprofit, which, for the first time, was something that resonated with who she was as a person. She eventually moved on to work for an orchard, but after a bad growing season left her jobless, she was left once again trying to figure out her next steps. “I wanted to have a job inspired by today’s CSA model that supports local farms every week through a subscription, and in 2010, that job didn’t really exist,” she says. Her mother suggested she create that job for herself by starting her own business.
“I thought it was a terrible idea — with no business experience, who would trust me? — but I have a hard time doing things I don’t feel passionate about, so I needed to at least try,” she says. “This mentality came from my DIY music background. If you want to play music, you just play music. If you want to go on tour, you just book yourself a tour. I thought I might as well give this a shot, so I did.”
Ying got in touch with farms and other connections she made through her work in nonprofits and began posting flyers around her neighborhood. Soon after, Local Roots was born, starting as a community-oriented farmers’ market called Harvest Club that sourced fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, and other products from local farms outside of the city. The business held its first official market pickup in 2011.
Fast-forward a full decade later, and Local Roots was thriving, throwing events and pop-ups at local bars and cafes in addition to an online market that offered pickup and local delivery — but Ying was looking for new ways to bring healthy food options to the community, particularly those who weren’t looking to cook themselves. “I realize that NYC kitchens aren’t always built for cooking, and some people just aren’t going to cook at home. So I thought, Let’s create another way to make local food accessible…let’s cook it for them.”
She also wanted to build a permanent space where people could meet and gather. So, along with the help of friends with restaurant operations experience, she opened the first Local Roots cafe in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in 2021.
And because it was at a time when there was a rise in violence against the AAPI community, Ying made the decision to pivot from the classic American menu she had in mind to one that was entirely Chinese-American. “I thought the best way I could address this issue was through food, because food is love and sharing culture can bring people together,” she says. “I wanted this menu to represent who I am as a Chinese-American.” On the menu, you’ll find organic, local renditions of her childhood favorite dishes like tea eggs and fan tuan, as well as some tried-and-true familiar favorites, like chicken and broccoli.
On a more personal level, her business is more than just an ode to her culture — it’s one to her family history, too. As Local Roots continues to flourish and grow, she’s become aware of just how closely her path aligns with her grandfather’s — a realization she only made earlier this year.
A Taiwanese immigrant with a background in farming and exports, Ying’s grandfather moved to the United States and launched his own red bean company, ultimately closing it due to a lack of money and equipment to scale his product to compete with big supermarket brands. While Ying says she’s always been touched by the story of his dream, it’s not something she consciously thought about as she worked on pursuing her own. “I do feel that there’s something in the universe at play — our ancestors put us on a path, and I’m just continuing a legacy that my grandfather was starting,” she says.
Looking back on this year, it’s evident that Ying’s hard work has paid off. Not only does 2023 mark the 13th anniversary of Local Roots’ initial inception, but it also marks the opening of a second cafe location, a kiosk in Market 57, a new James Beard Foundation-curated food hall on Manhattan’s West Side.
To celebrate this multifaceted milestone, she treated herself to a similarly multifaceted Shane Co. diamond-accented opal necklace. To her, the many colors reflected within the stone are a reminder of just how versatile and adaptable she is, and as a piece of jewelry she’ll eventually pass down to someone else, it reflects the dream her grandfather passed to her.
Moreover, it serves as a reminder to slow down: “My experience as a small business owner is that you can’t ever stop; I’m constantly going. So, buying myself an everyday piece of jewelry that I can always look at and appreciate reminds me to pause and acknowledge all I’ve achieved,” she says. “To run a small business as someone without a strong culinary or business background, who has never taken an investment, and has done everything totally grassroots is really hard, but I’m so glad to be a part of this now — and the acknowledgment that what you’re doing actually matters makes it all worth it.”