- Before the pandemic, the Nom Wah Tea Parlor had two-hour wait times and lines out the door.
- But come March, the oldest dim sum restaurant in NYC’s Chinatown lost 80% of its business.
- To save the restaurant, owner Wilson Tang and operations manager Barbara Leung launched a line of frozen dumplings that can be delivered all over the country.
- But even with frozen dumpling sales, take out, outdoor dining, and the new meal kits, like many NYC restaurants, Nom Wah is still operating at a loss.
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Wilson Tang: Our stuff is very affordable, and it’s a fan favourite. Prior to COVID, our business was busy all the time. We had upwards of two-hour waits on the weekend.
Narrator: But this year was nothing they could have predicted.
Tang: I actually haven’t taken a salary in the past six months.
Narrator: That’s Wilson, the owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown.
Tang: We’re actually celebrating our 100-year anniversary this year. We made a lot of sacrifices to get to where we are now.
Narrator: In March, when indoor dining came to a halt, Nom Wah lost 80% of its business. But the staff got creative, pivoting to make and deliver frozen dumplings. Today, they’re pumping out up to 20,000 dumplings a week.
Barbara Leung: As we go through this pandemic, it becomes clearer that restaurants can’t just survive on being a restaurant anymore. You can’t just serve food and then have all your eggs in one basket. You kinda have to think of different revenue streams.
Narrator: Barbara and her team were the masterminds behind the frozen dumplings. They took on the logistical challenge of freezing and packaging a dish that’s normally served fresh.
Leung: So, I kind of took a trip to the supermarket and just took pictures of all the packages and the labels. We were like, OK, so it doesn’t sound as daunting as we think it does, so let’s just kinda go for it.
Narrator: The new venture kept the commissary kitchen humming.
Leung: We just started simply with maybe one or two variations. So our pork soup dumplings, our chicken and cabbage dumplings, and we tried those out and kinda tested the waters.
Narrator: First, chefs feed the dumpling dough and filling into the machine. The machine wraps the filling in the dumpling wrappers, and out plops a perfectly formed dumpling. The machine can make up to 50 of them a minute.
Julie Cole: It’s the same exact product that we use in the store. The machine is able to get, like, really, really close to our handmade product.
Narrator: But there are some dumplings that even the machine can’t handle, the shumai and the pleated dumplings, so those have to be done by hand. Though whether they’re handmade or machine-assisted, the dumplings then head to the freezer.
Cole: These are shrimp and snow pea leaf dumplings. These are pork and shrimp shumai.
Narrator: And all this will be gone in two days. Once an order comes in online, chefs pull the dumplings out of the freezer and drop them into branded ziplock bags. Each bag starts at $US19. Customers all over the country can order through Goldbelly, but for locals, they can choose either pickup or delivery.
Leung: Direct delivery really came from the fact that people weren’t leaving their houses. And we were like, well, let’s just bring the product to them. It’s also a way to connect with our customers.
Narrator: Those customers continued to order, despite rising food costs from supply-chain issues.
Leung: We’re faced with at least, like, 40 to 50% increase in some costs. We shouldered most of that, but we did have to pass a little bit on to the consumer. About 10 to 15%. Narrator: And while the frozen dumplings did help turn things around, they still weren’t enough.
Tang: We’re not making money. It’s survival mode. Leung: After the frozen dumplings, it just made sense to do meal kits.
Narrator: The meal kits include all the ingredients and tools you’ll need to make rice rolls or chicken and cabbage dumplings at home.
Tang: We’re doing virtual cooking demos and cooking shows for various organisations.
Narrator: The team also shifted both the original Chinatown location and the newer location in Nolita to takeout. Customers order from a kiosk and pick up through the window. The most popular dish is the pork soup dumplings, but they’re dishing out all of the dim sum for takeout, from noodles to rice rolls. These orders go out on apps from Uber Eats to Seamless.
Leung: We’ve met customers where they are.
Narrator: And since May, the restaurants have also operated outdoor dining.
Tang: We’re really lucky to be able to be on a block that is easy to close. Couple of umbrellas, couple of tables and chairs, and we’re in business. It’s very weather determined. Like, if it’s too humid or it’s too hot, if it’s rainy, it kinda sucks. But then there are days like this, where it’s actually nice to go out.
Narrator: Wilson says he doesn’t think people will feel comfortable returning to indoor dining for years to come. So these new revenue streams for Nom Wah will be here to stay.
Tang: It’s honestly been a roller-coaster ride. There’s definitely good days and then there’s bad days, but as long as the good days outweigh the bad days, I’m OK with that. We are a beacon of light for the community. We’re the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, and if we aren’t able to survive, like, who can?
Editor’s note: At :57, the dish on the far left is mislabeled as orange chicken. The dish is actually chicken feet.
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