On March 16, when the first mandatory quarantine was announced in San Francisco, I was on the brink of launching Dumpling Club. I had just finished my third friends and family pilot. My husband and I had “the talk,” where we decided that I would give this thing my best shot for the next few years. Armed with a brand new Instagram account and 40 enthusiastic subscribers, I felt ready to fly.
And then it all came crashing down. The communal kitchen where I was working shut its doors amid fears of viral spread. Production ground to a halt as my days became consumed with childcare. But worst was the crippling loneliness. Entrepreneurship is already a pretty lonely journey: starting a business in an industry where I knew no one, without the ability to meet anyone, seemed impossible.
Yet two years later Dumpling Club is, above all else, a thriving community. In this second installment of my series for Edible San Francisco, I’m sharing some of the things I learned about building a community-based business during a time when there was no easy way to gather in person.
How exactly do you connect with people when you can’t meet up? Get on Instagram and tell your story.
This is the obvious place to start, but don’t worry, this essay is not an ode to social media. I think of Instagram (or TikTok, or YouTube) as a tool, not a solution. You can post daily and never create a true community. It’s what you say that matters.
The first few times I scrolled through Instagram, I felt sick with imposter syndrome. There is so much incredible food content made by people who are better photographers, videographers, and (frankly) better chefs than me. So I decided early on that I wouldn’t try to compete. I’d tell my story, and hope to find like-minded people along the way. That turns out to be a winning strategy, because while recipes can be copied, your story will always be 100% unique. When I post a new recipe, I try to go beyond the mechanics and talk about where I learned it, why I like it, and for what occasions I make it. These are the details that kick off truly meaningful conversations.
Find ways for everyone to participate.
In the early days of COVID, I only made dumplings when my children slept; and as you can imagine, that meant I wasn’t making a lot of dumplings. Every week I only managed to produce 20 or so packs of dumplings, which often sold out within the same minute the sale went live. It was ridiculous–how were people supposed to enjoy Dumpling Club if they could never get their hands on anything I made?
That’s when I first started posting the everyday dishes that I cook for my family in a series called #WeeknightChinese. I figured if people couldn’t buy my food, they could try to cook it for themselves. But dumplings are far too labor-intensive and daunting, so I began by sharing simple dishes, the ones that helped me, a busy mom, get relief from the stress and tedium of pandemic life.
Starting #WeeknightChinese wasn’t a calculated business strategy. It was just what I felt I had to do to include as many people as possible in the experience. Now it’s become the core of Dumpling Club. We don’t necessarily get to eat together, but we certainly cook together!
Ask for feedback, and act on it.
It’s not a community if you’re the only one talking. But don’t ask for the sake of asking. Be prepared to listen and incorporate it. People feel invested in Dumpling Club because their feedback matters to me.
For example, in the past I’ve asked:
“When do you celebrate Lunar New Year?” The answers led us to create two Lunar New Year pickup dates when we originally only planned for one.
“Were the tea eggs too salty yesterday?” That helped me fine-tune our recipe—and also helped me realize that getting seasoning right is really hard.
“Do you have a steamer at home?” Knowing that not everyone has a steamer is one of the reasons we focus on pan-fried baos instead of traditionally steamed ones. When I do post recipes that use a steamer, I try to offer an alternative (like steaming fish en papillote).
Treat every moment as an opportunity.
The only time I see people “in real life” is when they come to our kitchen to pick up their order. The natural inclination is to make pick-ups as efficient as possible, especially since contactless pick-ups have become the norm. But if this is the only few minutes I get with you, I’m not going to rush you away! I like to ask people how their week is going, and whether anything new or surprising has happened.
Sometimes we’ll talk about the food (“how were last week’s dumplings?” “Oh the scallion pancakes burned? Maybe try…”), but other times we’ll talk about the books we’re reading, or something funny our kids said. Sometimes I ask someone how they’re doing and they burst into tears. Those are the hardest conversations, but also the occasions when I’m so glad I took the time to ask.
I once overheard two people talking while waiting in line to pick up. One person was new to Dumpling Club and the other was a veteran. The veteran was saying “Oh yeah, there’s always a bit of a line because the chef likes to greet everyone and chat with them about their day.” Guilty. 🙂
Remember, it’s not a competition.
Some of the most important relationships I’ve built in the last couple of years are not just customers, but other chefs and business owners (especially female and Asian ones—go us!!!).
It would be reasonable to view other chefs as my competitors. But I don’t see any reason to compete when we could get so much further by supporting each other. As much time as I spend on DMs with my customers, I also make time to cheer on my fellow chefs. And they in turn have been incredibly warm and generous with me: Thanks to Stacy of Taiwan Bento for all the late-night pep talks; to Kevin of Claws of Mantis for the kitchen tips (like how to add more crunch to chili oil without adding spice); to Joyce of Bake Sum Pastries who lets me cry on her shoulder; and to Pim of Nari, who has always asked me the hard questions while believing in me 1000%. And there are so many more: Reesa of Poppy’s Bagels, Anabel of Frolic & Detour Bakery, Erin of Garden Creamery, Christine of Abacus Row, Eric Ehler who needs no introduction, and I could really just keep going and going.
Creating a community was always my intention for Dumpling Club, but it was also my lifeline during those first six months of isolation. And at the end of those first six months, my community grew: Welcome Linda, Dumpling Club’s first teammate! But I’ll save that story for the next issue.
Thanks for tuning in and see you for part three, where I talk about how I built my team and what makes us so resilient.
—Cathay Bi is the chef/owner of Dumpling Club in San Francisco