Savoring Dumplings of All Kinds

Dumpling Mama at the NYC Dumpling Festival

Dumpling Mama at the NYC Dumpling Festival

Men and women in lab coats and hairnets walk across the lobby of a former brewery nestled within East Williamsburg, through a wall of plastic strip curtains and into a chilled room.  

The brick building in Brooklyn that houses the cold chamber is not a new conceptual art experience, pharmaceutical lab,  or trendy coffee shop, it is a dumpling factory.

Chef One, a New York-based Asian food company, opened the factory 10 years ago and today it produces 44,000 dumplings an hour. The popularity of the traditionally Chinese dish, and ethnic foods in general, has been on the rise and reflects America’s changing attitudes to ethnic food and food culture—and Chef One’s owners are keen on capitalizing on the trend.

“We want to educate the mainstream audience that the dumpling is like a ravioli, a pierogi,” said Lillian Chan, vice president of sales and marketing from Chef One a dumpling brand. “It’s not just for Asians, it can be for anyone.”

Inside the Brooklyn factory, the company manufactures and then freezes the dumplings for shipment to supermarkets across the country. It hasn’t always been that way.  Chef One first started selling noodles and dumpling wrappers in Chinatown in 1989 to mostly Asian customers in New York. They gradually discovered that there is a broader market for ethnic appetizers and expanded their product line 10 years later.

Next year,  to capture a greater part of that market,  the company plans to open another factory in New Jersey to increase its production. The company’s growth mirrors the strong growth the ethnic foods industry in the United States is experiencing.

According to a 2015 study done by IBISWorld, an industry and procurement research company, the number of ethnic supermarkets has increased at a rate of 1.6 percent to 38,521 in five years, reflecting an increase in demand for ethnic foods. The hike is driven, primarily,  by the increase in the Asian and Hispanic population, concludes the study.

“As the children of these foreign born immigrants come of age, they enter the workforce and start to create a culture around the cuisine that they grew up with,” said Andrew Alvarez, author of the study. “Ethnic supermarkets are not just for the immigrant communities in which they are pigeonholed, younger consumers are an increasing target demographic for them.”

Immigrant communities together with millennial consumers, those 25 to 34 years old, make up 98 percent of sales of the $31.6 billion dollar ethnic supermarket industry.

In another report by market research firm Mintel called “Innovation on the Menu,” millennials were also said to lead the foodie revolution because they’ve been exposed to ethnic foods growing up and they share the experience via social media. The study also discovered that there is an increased interest in international cuisine in suburban areas, aside from urban areas. As ethnic cuisine becomes more accessible, the report concluded, more millennials will be exposed to these new flavors that they will then start to crave.  

“There’s a long way to go in some respects but consumers are much more open to trying new cuisines,” said Alvarez. Chef One plans to add organic dumplings to the factory’s mix, down the line, although Chan points out the company’s products have always been free of MSG and trans-fats.

Meanwhile, the company keeps tempting tastebuds with its offerings. On a sunny early fall afternoon, lines of people snaked through Sara D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side at the NYC Dumpling Festival to get a taste of Chef One’s savory bites. Some of them had stood in line for two hours for a plate with six pieces of “dim sum,” small pillows of dough filled with vegetable, pork or sweet custard.

Chef One started the September NYC Dumpling Festival in 2010. The idea: to have vendors hand out pierogies, ravioli and Chef One dumplings. Six years later, Chef One decided to focus the event on its 62 products and served steamed buns filled with smoky barbecue pork, pork and shrimp wontons, spicy vegetable curry samosas and even soup dumplings.

Over 2,100 people spent their Saturday afternoon at the September 28 event, that featured all kinds of dumplings, from savory chicken wontons to sweet pumpkin pie dumplings. The crowd, a mix of New Yorkers from different ethnic backgrounds, came out to enjoy the potstickers.

Live music performances entertained the crowd as they waited in line or had their fill of dumplings. Friends exchanged dumplings, swapping sweet for savory. One woman sighed, saying that they could have spent 10 minutes getting take out and enjoyed their food at home, instead of standing around. But more people seemed to savor the moment rather than complaining, taking their mobile phones out, snapping pictures of the food and taking selfies.   

Chef One can only hope that the line for those that can’t wait for a bite of a dumpling will keep growing.