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New delivery service aims to help hospitality workers with dumplings

Cali Dumpling's pork xiao long bao dumplings, made at a production facility in El Monte.
Dumplings from Cali Dumpling, a new dumpling delivery and takeout service started by Allan and Candace Tea in response to the pandemic.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

On the afternoon of March 14, restaurant owners Candace and Allan Tea exchanged vows at the Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Simi Valley. Three days later, restaurants in L.A. and Orange counties shut down due to the pandemic, and the world, as they knew it, fell apart.

The couple put off their honeymoon plans and instead closed the dining rooms at their Capital Seafood and three Capital Noodle Bar Chinese restaurants, which meant about 100 employees were out of work.

“I was really frustrated that I couldn’t do anything for my staff,” Allan said. “My employees were trying to get unemployment [but] some of them didn’t qualify, so we wanted to find a way to generate some revenue for our workers.”

Candace and Allan decided that dumplings were the answer.

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Dumplings are made for Cali Dumpling at a production facility in El Monte.
Dumplings are made for Cali Dumpling at a production facility in El Monte.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve always grown up eating dumplings, and it’s the easiest thing to cook and eat at home,” said Candace. “With everyone falling on such hard times, we thought dumplings were the perfect comfort food.”

Within 24 hours, they recruited a handful of their staff, built a website, designed a logo and launched the Cali Dumpling delivery service. All the profits are donated to former staff members or other nonprofits.

Where to find excellent dumplings (sheng jian bao! xiao long bao!) in Los Angeles.

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They reached out to Paul Chang, Anna Tang and Ann Lem, the trio behind the Mama’s Dumpling House and Mama Lu’s Dumpling restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, for help. The restaurateurs have a 3-year-old dumpling production facility in El Monte, which produces about 15,000 dumplings a day for their own restaurants, the Teas’ restaurants (in Brea, Costa Mesa and Irvine) and a selection of wholesale businesses.

This is where Cali Dumpling‘s 12 dumpling varieties are made, including pork and chive, fish, pan-fried chicken, vegetarian, shrimp and pork wontons and xiao long bao. Each bag of 30 dumplings ($15-$17) is delivered frozen with reheating instructions.

All of them are handmade using Tang’s secret family recipes, which she stores in a binder, hidden in a locked room.

On a recent morning, eight employees stuffed and folded xiao long bao, pork potstickers and chicken dumplings for Cali Dumpling orders on a long wooden table. In the prep room next door, a chef wielded a large knife to break down pork butts and then loaded them into a grinder. Industrial-sized containers of soy sauce, sesame oil and white pepper covered the kitchen shelves overhead.

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Eloy Pacheco, the lead chef responsible for the dumpling wrappers and mixing the fillings, has been making dumplings for more than 20 years, honing his skills at a variety of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

Pacheo worked quickly, using a short roller to flatten the small rounds of dough, careful to leave the center just a tad thicker to support the weight of the filling. He used a paddle to slap a ground pork mixture into the middle, then nimbly closed each one using exactly 18 folds.

Freshly-made dumplings for Cali Dumpling.
Freshly-made dumplings are immediately placed in the refrigerator at the El Monte facility where the Cali Dumpling dumplings are made.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I make maybe 2,000 dumplings a day,” he said.

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Once the dumplings are folded, they are frozen and packaged until they are delivered. Allan estimates the crew makes anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 Cali dumplings a day.

While Allan has rehired some of his staff to make and deliver the dumplings, he hasn’t been able to bring back more than 20% of them.

“With the money we raise with the dumplings, we’ve just been cutting people checks or hiring them to do deliveries or packaging to earn some income,” he said. Allan estimated they have given $30,000 in dumpling profits to employees since starting Cali Dumpling at the end of March.

They recently expanded the operation to include pickups at the Capital Noodle Bar restaurants as well as at select farmers markets. The plan is to continue to give the dumpling profits to their out-of-work employees, but Allan hopes to eventually turn Cali Dumpling into a for-profit business and widen the delivery range to include San Diego, Northern California and Las Vegas.

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“We still have to plan our honeymoon whenever we can travel again,” said Allan. “But in the meantime, we love what we’re doing.”

Just last week Allan got a new tattoo on his right bicep. It’s a snake (his Chinese zodiac sign), with its body coiled tightly around a plump little dumpling.


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