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Asian grocery start-up Weee draws shoppers with tradition, tech and a dash of Hollywood

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Online grocery delivery start-up Weee! encourages customers to share videos of recipes and favorite items on its app. It specializes in hard-to-find Asian foods, along with fruits, vegetables and other staples.

Weee!

Online grocery start-up Weee specializes in hard-to-find foods from Asian and Hispanic cuisines. It nabbed another kind of rarity earlier this year: A big Hollywood name in its executive suite.

The company hired Jon M. Chu, director of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” as its chief creative officer. Chu is bringing his storytelling expertise from the movies, in which food and culture play a central role, to an in-house team of about 10 people that spotlights unique dishes and the ingredients needed to make them — sold on the ever-expanding Weee online platform.

Chu said he imagines bringing unconventional features to the online grocer, like playlists of songs customers could listen to while cooking or a follow-up email they might receive about the history of items they’ve purchased.

“To me, this was more important than just doing a job for a start-up,” he said. “This was about my storytelling taking new form.”

Weee sells more than 10,000 products, from cuisine-specific items such as kimchi and frozen shrimp dumplings to staples like milk, bananas and chicken breasts. Shoppers can browse the company’s website and app in different languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean or Spanish. On the app, shoppers can also order takeout from more than 1,000 restaurants.

The San Francisco Bay Area-based start-up now delivers fresh groceries to 18 states and shelf-stable products to all lower 48 states. It has eight fulfillment centers across the country, in states including Washington to New Jersey, where orders are packed and shipped.

The company is trying to stand out in a fragmented space — and previewing how grocery shopping online could look in the future. The grocer’s app and website shake up the typical experience of online food shopping to make it more social and immersive.

Weee encourages customers to upload videos of recipes and favorite foods to its app through a TikTok-like feature. Shoppers can buy snacks and ingredients featured in those videos with a click of a button. They get discounts if they refer a friend or family member and can share custom coupons for the items they recently purchased.

“We just believe that food shopping shouldn’t be like what we see today,” founder and CEO Larry Liu said. “It should be much, much better, much, much more inspiring and fun.”

Changing tastes

Over the past two years, consumers have embraced new ways to fill up fridges and developed expanded palates while cooking more at home. That inspired some to try meal kits, get groceries delivered to their doors or use curbside pickup.

The Covid pandemic sparked growth for Weee. The privately held, venture-backed start-up declined to share its total customers and revenue, but said it has fulfilled more than 15 million orders so far. Its monthly active users have grown more than 150% year over year. To date, the start-up has raised more than $800 million in funding — including a $425 million investment round announced in February led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

The pandemic also catalyzed the U.S. online grocery market, which accounts for a small but growing fraction of the industry’s total sales. Online grocery sales almost doubled from $29.3 billion in 2019 to $57 billion in 2020, according to IRI E-Market Insights and Coresight Research. Online grocery sales in the country will reach nearly $90 billion this year, according to the firms’ estimate. Yet brick-and-mortar still dominates the grocery category, with as much as 95% of food retail spending taking place at stores in 2021, according to Coresight’s research.

Online grocery retailers don’t have sample stations, colorful displays and other experiences that draw people to stores and prompt purchases, said Ken Fenyo, president of research and advisory at Coresight Research.

At stores, customers are “able to smell the fruit. You’re able to walk the aisles and see if there’s something new you want. You might have that serendipity of ‘Oh, I forgot I needed that. Let me throw it in.'” he said. “Online tends to be a lot more search-driven, a lot more list-driven.”

Retailers like Weee can revive experiential elements to grocery shopping to make e-commerce more exciting and personalized, Fenyo said. Other direct-to-consumer grocers have carved out specialties, such as Thrive Market, which sells organic and natural foods, or Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods, which sell high-quality groceries for less by offering misshaped fruits and vegetables, broken almond pieces or similar items.

The challenge for Weee and other smaller online grocery players is winning new customers, keeping the cost of deliveries low and fending off traditional grocers, who may encroach on their turf, Fenyo said.

Larry Liu, a Chinese immigrant, started Weee! because of his own struggles to find favorite foods.

Weee!

An immigrant’s tale

For Liu, 41, the challenges that inspired Weee were personal.

Liu, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, founded the company in 2015 after struggling to find some of his own favorite foods. He grew weary of the hour-and-a-half drive to his closest Asian market and got inspired by seeing WeChat groups organized by others who missed the tastes of home. In one, a woman coordinated a group order for friends — and friends of friends — who wanted to buy fresh cod from Half Moon Bay in California.

That experience later shaped some of the Weee app’s distinct features, such as a “Community” tab that resembles a social media network with a mix of company- and user-generated videos.

Weee caters to customers who live in communities that don’t have the density to support a large Asian market like an H Mart, from international students attending college in the States to seniors who live at assisted living facilities, Liu said. Most customers order more than two times per month and Weee makes up about 40% to 50% of their monthly grocery budget, he said.

Weee is gradually adding Hispanic foods, too. It offers a Mexican cuisine category in California and Texas.

Popular items include everyday staples like rice and fresh vegetables, along with seasonal items, such as sweet winter melon from Vietnam, hot pot kits from Southern China and sesame cake from Northern China during Lunar New Year.

Its app features a rotating list of suggestions, too, such as Japanese snacks to celebrate “sakura,” or cherry blossom, season or treats for Mother’s Day. It also offers a growing assortment of beauty and household items, such as Korean cosmetics.

Jon M. Chu attends Disney’s Premiere of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” at El Capitan Theatre on August 16, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Axelle | Bauer-Griffin | FilmMagic | Getty Images

A new kind of storytelling

Before Weee hired film director Chu, he had already seen the company’s delivery trucks, heard about the company from friends, and began getting deliveries as a customer of Korean barbecue ingredients like sauce and short ribs. Intrigued by the company and its mission, he reached out to Liu. Their conversations led to a job offer.

Chu will soon start directing Universal Pictures’ adaption of the Broadway hit “Wicked” with Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo. Despite the big project, he said he wanted to make room in his schedule for Weee.

As a kid, Chu often did his homework at the bar of Chef Chu’s, the family restaurant his parents have had in the San Francisco Bay Area for about 50 years. The restaurant is featured in a video about Weee’s purpose of connecting generations and cultures through food.

Now a father himself, Chu said he wants to make sure that his three young kids learn about their culture.

“I wanted them, when they smelled Asian food, [to feel] that it wasn’t exotic or weird for them,” he said. “That it was home for them the way it was for me.”

Chu recently capitalized on his Rolodex of Hollywood connections, teaming up with Disney and Pixar to develop recipes and shoot videos for the Weee app inspired by “Turning Red,” a coming-of-age movie about a Chinese-Canadian teenager who turns into a giant red panda. Chu interviewed the movie’s director, Domee Shi, about making the film and did an unboxing of some of her favorite childhood snacks.

Chu and Liu said by telling the stories behind dishes, the grocery service can introduce people to new traditions and flavors.

Erin Edwards, 34, of Santa Ana, California, and her family are among those kinds of eaters. Edwards, who is not Asian or Hispanic, placed her first order from Weee in February after watching a video shared by a friend. Since then, she’s kept shopping with the site to supplement her weekly shopping at Trader Joe’s and Target.

Her family of four has bought Chinese snacks and ingredients for Asian recipes, from crab-flavored potato chips to noodles for homemade pho. Pocky, Japanese chocolate-dipped biscuit sticks, has become a favorite dessert for her 2-year-old daughter, Holland, and 4-year-old daughter, Wren.

“Seeing people make videos and do tutorials, it makes it so easy,” she said. “We’ve been much more empowered in doing it ourselves.”

Liu said he sees a similar culture of sharing in his three young children.

“Their classmates, no matter what their skin color, they all drink boba milk tea. They all eat sushi. They all eat Korean barbecue and Indian curry and Mexican tacos,” he said. “So I think the future generation, their taste is going to be very, very diverse. In a way, we are really building the assortment for the future cultural explorers.”

Disclosure: CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent of Universal Pictures.

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‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ tops $108 million as parents flock back to cinemas, kids in tow

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“Minions: The Rise of Gru” is the sequel to the 2015 film, “Minions,” and spin-off/prequel to the main “Despicable Me” film series.

Universal

Families have gone bananas for “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

Over the weekend, the Universal and Illumination animated feature tallied more than $108 million in ticket sales.

The fifth film in the Despicable Me franchise generated an additional $93.7 million from international markets, bringing its estimated opening weekend haul to $202 million globally.

“With the incredible success of ‘Minions,’ the notion that family audiences were avoiding movie theaters due to Covid concerns can be shelved,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Box office analysts had wondered if this segment of moviegoers was still avoiding cinemas after Disney and Pixar’s “Lightyear” took in just $51 million during its domestic debut last month, below expectations of $70 million and $85 million.

It was unclear if tough box office competition led to “Lightyear’s” less than stellar debut or if consumers were confused about the film’s release. After all, there has not been a theatrical release of a Pixar film since 2020′s “Onward.” The last three from the animation studio, “Soul,” “Luca” and “Turning Red,” were all released on streaming service Disney+.

“Minions: The Rise of Gru” represented 54% of all domestic moviegoers over the weekend, with 68% of ticket holders being part of family groups, according to data from EntTelligence.

“What this weekend has showcased is a triumphant return to cinemas by families, laying to rest any lingering and outdated pandemic narrative that parents and kids only want to watch movies at home,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “When the right content is out there, people will show up.”

The film is expected to add another $20 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada on Monday, bringing its holiday weekend total to $128 million.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of “Minions: The Rise of Gru.”

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American Airlines scheduling glitch allows pilots to drop thousands of July flights

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An American Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner approaches for a landing at the Miami International Airport on December 10, 2021 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

A glitch in a scheduling platform allowed American Airlines pilots to drop thousands of July assignments overnight Saturday, their union said, a headache for the airline as it tries to minimize flight disruptions during a booming travel season.

American said it didn’t expect the problem to affect its operation, including during the busy July Fourth holiday weekend. The union and airline are now discussing additional pay for pilots whose dropped trips the airline reinstated, the Allied Pilots Association said.

“As a result of this technical glitch, certain trip trading transactions were able to be processed when it shouldn’t have been permitted,” the airline said in a statement. “We already have restored the vast majority of the affected trips and do not anticipate any operational impact because of this issue.”

More than 12,000 July flights lacked either a captain, first officer, or both, after pilots dropped assignments, the Allied Pilots Association said Saturday. APA said the airline reinstated about 80% of the trips.

Pilots can routinely drop or pick up trips, but time off in the summer or holidays is hard to come by for airline employees as schedules peak to cater to strong demand.

On Saturday alone, American had more than 3,000 mainline flights scheduled and they were 93% full, according to an internal tally. Flights left unstaffed, however, are an additional strain on any airline.

The glitch occurred during a rocky start to the Fourth of July weekend when thunderstorms and staffing issues caused thousands of U.S. flight delays and hundreds of cancellations.

A similar issue occurred in 2017, when a technology problem let American’s pilots take vacation during the busy December holiday period. The carrier offered pilots 150% pay for pilots that picked up assignments.

American and its pilots’ union, whose relationship has been fraught, are in the middle of contract negotiations and the airline most recently offered nearly 17% raises through 2024.

Union president Capt. Ed Sicher, who started his term Friday, told American’s roughly 15,000 pilots Saturday night that American Airlines CEO Robert Isom said he is committed to paying an “inconvenience premium” to aviators whose trips American put back on their schedules after the glitch.

“To Mr. Isom’s credit, he called me four times today to commit to mitigating the damage from this debacle,” Sicher wrote late Saturday. “We started at a 200% override, although the details of this pay are still the subject of negotiations and there is no guarantee of the details or the amounts.”

American Airlines declined to comment on Sicher’s message to pilots.

American’s pilots have picketed recently against grueling schedules, something they want to be addressed in a new contract. Pilots at Delta and Southwest have picketed in recent weeks for similar reasons.

Sicher also struck an upbeat tone about contract talks with American, particularly about quality-of-life issues.

“Please understand that no firm commitments have yet been made, but I feel that we have, at least for the first time since negotiations began, received positive indications that management is motivated to achieve collaborative solutions to longstanding problems with our current contract that will greatly enhance our ability to trade our trips and consequently enhance our quality of life,” he wrote.

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Trump media company subpoenaed in federal criminal probe of SPAC deal

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump gives the keynote address at the Faith & Freedom Coalition during their annual “Road To Majority Policy Conference” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center June 17, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Seth Herald | Getty Images

Donald Trump’s media company was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in connection with a criminal probe, according to the company with which the former president’s firm plans to merge.

Digital World Acquisition Corp. said in a filing Friday that Trump Media and Technology Group received a subpoena from the grand jury in Manhattan on Thursday. The Trump company also received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding a civil probe on Monday, DWAC said.

DWAC also said some current and former TMTG employees have also recently received grand jury subpoenas.

The filing came days after DWAC said the government investigations could delay or even prevent its merger with Trump’s newly formed company, which includes Truth Social, a social media app intended to be an alternative to Twitter.

Neither TMTG nor a spokeswoman for Trump immediately responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The Justice Department and the SEC, which regulates the stock market, are investigating the deal between DWAC and Trump Media. By merging with DWAC, which is a kind of shell company called a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, Trump’s firm would gain access to potentially billions of dollars on public equities markets.

Trump established Truth Social months after Twitter banned him for his tweets on Jan. 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Trump Media’s CEO is former Rep. Devin Nunes, one of the former president’s most ardent loyalists in the Republican Party. Trump is also considering whether to run for president in the 2024 election.

Trump has continued to spread the lie that the election was stolen from him. His alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection is being probed by a House select committee that has accused the former president of being at the center of a multipronged conspiracy to block the peaceful transfer of power to Biden.

Early criticism of the Trump-DWAC deal came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. In calling for an investigation, she wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler in November, telling him that DWAC “may have committed securities violations by holding private and undisclosed discussions about the merger as early as May 2021, while omitting this information in [SEC] filing and other public statements.”

DWAC shares are far off their highs, closing Friday at $24.20. The stock had surged above $90 in October, after the deal with Trump’s group was announced.

DWAC on Monday revealed in a securities filing that it learned June 16 that each member of its board of directors received subpoenas from the same federal grand jury.

The grand jury sought documents similar to those the SEC already requested as part of its civil probe, DWAC said. The company itself was served with a subpoena a week ago with similar requests, along with other requests relating to communications, individuals and information involving Rocket One Capital.

DWAC also revealed Monday that a board member, Bruce J. Garelick, had told management that he would quit the board during the previous week. Garelick said his resignation “was not the result of any disagreement with Digital World’s operations, policies or practices,” according to the company filing.

— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Thomas Franck contributed to this story.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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