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Georgia Chopsticks Finds A New Market In China

New ideas, new markets, new insights—innovation takes many forms. Look around and you'll find it all over the U.S.A.

Georgia Chopsticks Finds A New Market In China

Georgia Chopsticks, Americus, Georgia

A Korean man made a pair of chopsticks in Georgia and sent them to China—it sounds vaguely like the very specific beginnings of a weird joke. But it's actually the story of Jae Lee, founder and owner of Georgia Chopsticks, who shows that it's not always what you make that counts as innovation but how you make it and whom you sell it to. Lee spotted the potential for a huge new market when he learned that China doesn't harvest enough domestic wood to produce the billions of pairs of disposable chopsticks used there each year. Korean-born Lee founded the company, which he says is the only chopsticks manufacturer in the U.S., in 2010. It has brought 47 much-needed new jobs to Americus, and it now sends more than 80 million pairs of chopsticks—made of locally abundant poplar—to China every month. "Last year, we had the same price as Chinese- produced chopsticks," Lee says, "but right now, we're about 20% lower." This year, Lee plans to expand into the production of toothpicks and tongue depressors, both crafted of wood scraps left over from chopstick making.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.