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By James McAllister
– Last updated on GMT
Related tags: Sichuan Fry, Chinese cuisine, Dumpling Shack, Street food, Generation Next
“You know, I don’t feel like I’m a proper businessman,” says John Li, somewhat unexpectedly, as our conversation draws to a close. It’s a surprising statement for several reasons, but not least because Li has spent the preceding half hour telling me about his vision for the future of his multifaceted Dumpling Shack Group, which he runs in partnership with his wife, Yee.
Taken aback, I ask Li to explain what he means. “You ask someone in this industry where they are going to be in five years’ time and they know exactly, I don’t have that,” he responds, thoughtfully. Then, after a pause, adds: “What I do have is ambition. I’m a very driven person, and if I keep working hard, I’ll be able to achieve what I’ve set out to do.”
Long term, those ambitions range from opening a food hall-style Asian market to launching a national line of retail products. Li even hints at wanting to take his business international. But in the short term his focus is on the launch of his latest concept, Sichuan Fry, which will open on Westgate Street in London’s Hackney early next month and mark the group’s first foray into bricks and mortar.
Having originally established Dumpling Shack as a street food stall on nearby Broadway Market back in 2014, Sichuan Fry’s opening is something of a full circle moment for Li, but it also reflects a fundamental evolution of the Dumpling Shack Group’s portfolio. Until now the group, which operates Dumpling Shack sites in Old Spitalfields Market and Canary Wharf as well as Fen Noodles in Spitalfields, has focused exclusively on Chinese street food staples, but Sichuan Fry sees it move into an arguably more challenging segment of the market… fried chicken.
“It’s a saturated space, but I want to give it a go,” says Li. “I’ve done a lot of research into comparable concepts, and I think we have something that’s unique and has growth potential. I’m not turning my back on the Dumpling Shack brand, but I want to add more strings to my bow.”
We’re in a quiet upstairs area of Old Spitalfields Market in East London on a sunny weekday afternoon, overlooking the Kitchens where Dumpling Shack’s flagship site can be found. The day’s lunchtime rush may have long since subsided, but queues continue to form around the Dumpling Shack stall; hungry patrons eager for their fix of shengjianbao soup dumplings – its signature dish.
Dumpling Shack is one of the longest serving and most successful tenants to take up residence at the Kitchens in Old Spitalfields, having been there since the project launched in 2017. “We always wanted to come into a place like this to test our food with an office lunch crowd,” says Li. “If we got the price point right and could do it at speed, we knew we were on to a winner.”
Li’s idea for Dumpling Shack came from his time spent living in Hong Kong. Having completed a politics degree and attended law school, he relocated to the UK to pursue a career as a banker. But he soon decided to return, inspired to explore a different career. “I realised banking wasn’t the right environment for me. London is my home. I’ll always see it as that, and that’s what ultimately drew me back here, but Hong Kong has an amazing energy and an incredible food scene. My love for dumplings grew while I was there. There was so much variety, but in London there just wasn’t. It was still stuck in the more traditionalist era of Chinese takeaway cuisine.”
At the time, the capital’s street food scene was kicking into gear with the likes of Bleeker Burger, Pizza Pilgrims and Pitt Cue making waves. “Those brands made me want to be a part of that movement.”
Broadway Market was the first street market that was willing to take a punt on Li and give him a stall. The shengjianbao, a Shanghainese staple of handmade dumplings stuffed with pork and pan fried without first being steamed – a process that allows the dough to rise and the bottom to crisp at the same time – didn’t initially feature on the menu, but soon became a signature dish. Queues formed quickly with diners enticed by what was, at the time, a less familiar style of dim sum.
Li credits the following he built at the market with allowing him to relocate to Spitalfields, but is frank about the challenges of those early days in the market. “It was a real slog. We have 50 people working for us now, but when I started it was just me. I would spend my Thursdays and Fridays making the dumplings for the Saturday market. But no matter how much work I did beforehand, everything took ages. People would queue for a long time.
“We hold our hands up and say we’re not natural chefs. But we love food and we’re passionate about it.”
While he may not have had any formal chef’s training when he launched Dumpling Shack, Li had extensive industry experience, having worked in his parent’s Chinese takeaway between the ages of 11 and 18.
“My parents never wanted me to go into the food industry,” says Li. “They worked hard to send me to private school, and hoped I would become a lawyer. I don’t think it’s any parent’s dream to slog your guts out in a restaurant, especially being from an immigrant family.”
Suffice to say, neither his mother nor father were particularly enthusiastic when he told them of his career change. “I’m pretty sure my mum cried,” he adds, wryly. “It’s hard for a traditional Chinese parent to get their head around their son wanting to set up a gazebo every Saturday to sell dumplings to punters, and that be a viable business model.
“For them even now there’s probably a bit of despair, but it’s something I’ve persevered with. I love running a restaurant business, I’m super passionate about it. You have to be, because when days are shit, they’re really shit. But when they’re good, you’re on top of the world.”
In 2017, Nuno Mendes was put in charge of curating the Kitchens’ line-up for Old Spitalfields Market and approached Li, who by this point was running the Broadway Market stall with Yee, to offer them a permanent pitch. It was a vindication of the couple’s hard work, but the move was daunting; growing from a one-day to seven-day operation meant a lot more dumplings would be needed, and Li feared that they wouldn’t be able to keep up with demand.
His doubts were soon assuaged, however. Not only did Dumpling Shack keep pace, Li found time to work on developing the menu – the larger kitchen allowing for steamed dumplings to be added. They included prawn wontons, served with a house-made spicy 'mala' chilli oil; and a fragrant Tianjin wonton soup.
Li also experimented with noodles, adding a spicy beef dan dan noodles dish to the menu to elevate the offer in the afternoon and early evenings. This development eventually led to the birth of Dumpling Shack’s first sister concept: Fen Noodles, which launched in late 2019.
Fen Noodles now occupies a larger corner unit in the Kitchens at Spitalfields that’s away from the Dumpling Shack stall, but originally operated out of an adjacent site. The decision to relocate, which happened during the pandemic, has given the brand space to establish itself in its own right, with the addition of a charcoal grill – only allowed in the corner units at Spitalfields due to issues with extraction fans – offering the team (led by food and beverage entrepreneur Nelson Chan, in partnership with the Lis) scope to further evolve the food.
Alongside hand-pulled noodle dishes, the menu features a selection of skewers including ones with lamb shoulder marinated in cumin, garlic, soy and chilli; and another with grilled potato and spring onions seasoned with garlic and topped off with spices. To ensure Fen Noodles and Dumpling Shack do not cannibalise each other, menu crossover is kept to a minimum, with only one dumpling dish on Fen’s menu – a vegan combo of Chinese cabbage, carrots, shiitake mushrooms served with a ‘signature’ spicy sauce – also served at Dumpling Shack.
Li is open about the struggles to make Fen Noodles work. While Dumpling Shack was able to continue operating successfully as a delivery brand during the various Covid-19 lockdowns, having already built a loyal following, Fen had not had the time to bed in. Indeed, Li says he was close to pulling the plug on the brand, but that the move to the corner unit gave the concept some much-needed room to breathe.
He credits both Spitalfields and his team with securing Fen’s future. “They’re the ones who ultimately helped me turn this into a genuine, bona fide business. When I started it was just a hobby, but now it’s something real.”
Much like Fen Noodles, Sichuan Fry was born out of kitchen experimentation; in this instance during the quiet afternoons of lockdown when Dumpling Shack’s Spitalfields site was open for delivery. “We started off doing it just as something to put on Instagram, but people really responded to it and the idea ballooned from there.”
Working with development chef Haydon Wong, Li wanted to create a Sichuan spin on a Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich. Sichuan Fry’s signature burger features fried chicken spiced with Sichuan peppercorns and chillies and served in a Martin’s potato roll with house-made Sichuan sauce, pickled chillies, smacked cucumber pickles and sesame slaw. There will also be an option for a mala mapo sauce-coated chicken burger; and a panko-coated aubergine vegan option.
Li’s plan is for Sichuan Fry to operate in the fast casual space with the ground floor restaurant primarily tailored to the grab-and-go crowd, but with limited counter and table seating available. While a full menu is yet to be confirmed, chicken burgers will be supported by a roster of wings, tenders and fries, the latter of which will take inspiration from a McDonald’s concept in Asia known as ‘shake shake fries’ whereby they are mixed with various different seasonings including seaweed powder, salt and pepper, and salted egg and chilli.
The idea to establish a permanent site in Hackney came about after Li was offered the Gourmet Burger Kitchen site in Spitalfields. At 4,000sq ft, it was far too big a move for Dumpling Shack but did push Li to finally make the move to bricks and mortar, as well as light the spark for possible further expansion ideas.
“It would have been stupid for a business like mine to take on a site that size, but I liked the idea of putting two or three concepts in the kitchen there and running it in a canteen style. I’ve been blown away by what JKS have done with Arcade, and it’s one of my further ambitions to have a mini market or food hall of my own.
Another avenue Li wants to explore is a Chinese concept that combines restaurant kiosks with retail in a similar way to Eataly, the Italian retail and food hall chain that made its UK debut in Bishopsgate last year. Dumpling Shack already sells its homemade chilli oil and is currently developing lines of ready-made sauces and frozen dumplings.
Li has long harboured an ambition to grow Dumpling Shack. Before the first Covid lockdown in 2020 he was close to signing on a site in Holborn, but the pandemic killed the deal. The idea was to use the location as a foothold to establish more Dumpling Shacks across the capital, with the hope of eventually expanding across the UK.
Even now, he still has plans of growing Dumpling Shack into a chain. The group’s takeaway and delivery kitchen site in Canary Wharf, having launched in 2020 as a hybrid base for both Fen Noodles and Dumpling Shack, now only services the latter. The new Hackney site will also have a dedicated Dumpling Shack dark kitchen in its basement.
If the brand is to go further, though, more work will need to be done to accelerate the labour-intensive production of the shengjianbao, each of which is made by hand. The business sells around 15,000 dumplings every week and Li says Hackney will give it the space to consolidate some of the production. “Eventually, if we’re going to expand, we’ll need a fully operational central kitchen.”
Another aspiration is to take the business internationally, tapping into the huge global market for dumpling restaurants. While shengjianbao is still a relatively new phenomenon in London, there are chains dedicated to them all over Hong Kong and China. And more and more of those businesses are expanding internationally.
They include Din Tai Fung, the famed Taiwanese restaurant chain that now operates more than 170 locations in 13 countries around the world, including the UK, where it now has three London sites in Covent Garden, Selfridges and Centre Point.
Does he see the growth of Din Tai Fung and the prospect of more dumpling brands coming to the UK as a threat to any future rollout of Dumpling Shack? “It does scare me, a little,” he admits. “But it also keeps me on my toes.
“I know there’s always things to improve on, and that’s what keeps me going. If we rest on our laurels, we’ll lose customers. My job is to grow the business and make sure we continue to stand out.”
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Related topics: Business Profile, Street Food