A recent photo of my hand holding a dumpling shocked me, the way seeing photos of my children can. So many tiny changes that accumulate so quickly. I suddenly noticed my nails, trimmed neatly but ruthlessly short. Despite my drawer full of jewelry, my whole hand was free of adornment except for a plain wedding band. Most shocking were the wrinkles: each of my fingers prunelike, as if they’d just emerged from a hot bath.
These are my hands after two years of making dumplings nearly every day, and the wrinkles are here to stay.
I’m the owner of a small business called Dumpling Club, based in the Mission in San Francisco. Two years ago, I quit my job as a product manager at Google and started making dumplings for my friends and family. Now I run a five-person kitchen that makes thousands of dumplings and wontons each week, plus dozens of sides and sauces. Our weekly meal kit service has 130 subscribers (and a 300-person wait list!). A community of eaters all over the Bay Area regularly enjoy our food, while people all over the country tune into our cooking series on Instagram.
This is the first of a four-part series for Edible San Francisco about how I built Dumpling Club from scratch and what I learned along the way. It’s not exactly a playbook, because there’s no single straightforward path to success, but I hope it helps a little.
Want to start a business? Just do it. (Please don’t sue me, Nike.)
When I first began telling people about Dumpling Club, I was unprepared for all the questions about its origin.
“Wow! Did you always dream of starting a food business?”
Me: “No, not really.”
“Oh… do you have an amazing family dumpling recipe or something?”
“So… did you go to culinary school?”
People assume that I started with The Vision, which became The Grand Master Plan, and then executed it. But creating a business is both a lot simpler and a lot more complex than that. You can start yours tomorrow, with no vision, no plan, and frankly, no qualifications. That’s what I did.
In October 2019, I resigned from my position of 11 years, feeling deeply unhappy and burnt out. My first order of business was unlearning everything I’d learned in the corporate world. For six weeks, I focused on my body. I worked mostly with my hands, playing my violin every morning and cooking every afternoon.
After making dumplings for hours one day, I remarked to my friend Niket, “Dumplings are really the perfect food. I just wish I could buy frozen dumplings with better ingredients and more interesting flavors.” Niket is what they call a “serial entrepreneur” and has the creative capacity of 10 humans. He said, “Sounds like a great idea. Why don’t you do it? ”
Prompted by his enthusiasm, I booked a membership for myself at a community kitchen in the Mission and found 15 friends who agreed to give me $40 for four weeks of frozen dumplings. Those 15 friends turned into 25 friends, and those 25 friends turned into 40… and that’s how Dumpling Club began.
So what does “just do it” really mean? Here’s what I learned.
Focus on the experience; don’t get distracted by the packaging. You want to figure out pretty quickly whether people like your food or whatever else you’re making. Put 90% of your energy into making the best product you can, and the remainder into everything else. In the 10% pile, prioritize the bare necessities, like finding a space to cook and getting good ingredients.
What things are luxuries? Websites, logos, fancy packaging, even a name. I ran three friends and family pilots without a name. I delivered food in plastic bags with no labels. Two years later, we still don’t have a website or a logo. Hopefully we’ll get to those in 2022.
Find people who will use your product, and — this is the important part — charge them for it.
In the beginning, you don’t need to have a lot of customers,users and you don’t need to charge a lot. My friend Gabe wants to start a sandwich shop; I told him to find 10 people willing to pay him $5 for a sandwich. People are less likely to be critical of a free sandwich (everybody loves free stuff), but you’d be surprised how picky people get for even $5. I also recommended that he charge enough to cover some of his costs. It’s important to build that habit now, because food businesses especially have a lot of fixed costs.
When I ran my first pilot, I charged $10 for one delivery of dumplings, and that small amount had a radical impact on me. Once people paid me, the work felt a lot less like a fun project and more like a business with a deadline. It was the best thing I could do for my own psyche.
Don’t get overwhelmed thinking about health permits and LLCs.
You don’t need either in order to run your first pilot with your close friends and family. You do need these things if you want to grow. (Dumpling Club is an LLC with a health permit.) But they should not be barriers for you to get started. Do your research on food safety and know your temps and times. And know that in California, home chefs can sell to the public across the state thanks to H.B. 94, Microenterprise Home Kitchen Amendments, and the older A.B. 1616, Cottage Food Operations. When you’re ready, look them up.
Listen closely to what people say.
My original idea was to develop a really good recipe for a frozen dumpling that I would sell wholesale to grocery stores and retailers. I emailed out a Google Form every week, asking people to rate the dumplings I sent them. But at the end of the first pilot, people said they couldn’t pick a favorite: what they really enjoyed was getting a different flavor dumpling delivered every week.
That feedback changed the course of Dumpling Club. My goal became helping people solve the ever-frustrating question “What’s for dinner?” Every facet of Dumpling Club is designed to ease that stress around getting a high-quality meal on the dinner table.
Listening is also how we ended up with our name. A couple months after I started, two of my girlfriends bumped into one another and started talking. One of them said, “Oh, are you in Cathay’s dumpling club too?” Bingo!
After running multiple pilots, I started February 2020 with a name, an Instagram account, and full commitment to bringing Dumpling Club to life. Then the pandemic hit me like a sledgehammer.
See you next issue, where I’ll talk about my early struggles and how staying nimble helped Dumpling Club not only survive, but begin to take off.
—Cathay Bi is the chef/owner of Dumpling Club in San Francisco