When Cathay Bi folded her first dumplings, part of a test batch for friends and family, she had no idea it would be the start of not just a business endeavor, but a community. Since those early days in 2019, Dumpling Club has grown from a subscriber-based, small-batch dumpling club — one that would sell out weekly — to its most recent iteration: a Mission District shop opening on January 20. Step inside the storefront and you’ll find a space filled with all manner of food-related items. It’ll also be a space for cooking classes, and a place, of course, for dumplings. “I think a lot of our customers think of us as a community as opposed to a dumpling factory,” Bi says. “And as the world was coming back alive from the pandemic haze, it seemed a really natural transition to start thinking about a physical place where our community can come together.”
Dumpling Club subscribers who would often pick up their weekly orders from Bi will be familiar with the space. Bi and her team previously used the Tinker Kitchen space on 22nd Street as a commissary kitchen during the pandemic. But when the location was put up for sale, Bi took it as her opportunity to grow the business in a new direction — just not in the one most would expect. Yes, Bi acknowledges, it would seem like a natural step to make the big leap into a full restaurant — and, to be fair, she hasn’t quite ruled that out for the future — but the transition to a cooking class space, dumpling retailer, and food shop seemed like a much closer extension of what Dumpling Club is. “The way that this transformed into a multipurpose space is really because I’ve been actively thinking about ways to build a space around food that isn’t a restaurant,” Bi says.
Bi has been working out how to describe the not-a-restaurant. As a former Google product manager she’s used to being asked for one-line descriptions for projects, she says. But to her, the Dumpling Club space on 22nd Street is so much more than a restaurant. Dumplings — and all of the creative iterations Bi and her team have worked on and developed — made with high-quality ingredients are still central to the business. Rotating flavors will be available for pre-order and pick up at the shop with the intention of making extras for walk-up purchases in the future. But the new storefront is also a reflection of the community she’s created in the years since the business launched. The shop is both a way to support customers through their cooking adventures with products such as Asian cookbooks, sauces, ceramics, and chopsticks.
Looking closer, it’s also a way Bi hopes to support other food makers and artists she’s met on her Dumpling Club journey. The hot chile sauces for dumplings are made by friends; the ceramics crafted by local artisans; even the plants for sale, which Bi knows aren’t quite food-related, are a plant collaboration with another friend. “Originally, my thought was, let’s just make the shop an extension of these different tools that help you participate in food,” Bi says. But the shop has evolved many times since that idea, and now includes a section for children’s books about dumplings, chopsticks for kids, and even stuffed bao toys.
Continuing with that theme of community, the space will also serve as a space for cooking classes. In the last few months, Bi and her team have hosted cooking classes such as an egg tart- and bao-making class with Jessica Fu of Stonemill Matcha; now they’re hoping to add more events like that for customers. Already on the schedule for January 20 and 21, and January 28 and 29, are dumpling wrapping classes for the Lunar New Year. Once the club gets past opening, Bi is thinking ahead to other things she can fold into the new space, such as hosting another Chinese breakfast event. “It feels like I’ve run a marathon,” Bi says. “And at the same time, it feels as if I’m only on the tip of the iceberg.”