Din Tai FungPosted: April 20, 2014
We’re proud to announce that a client from one of our most recent projects received a great honor. Din Tai Fung was voted one of the top 10 gourmet restaurants in the world by the New York Times. We had the privilege to provide Din Tai Fung’s newest restaurant in Seattle, Washington with all their wood walls and timberaccents.
Special thanks to our Seattle distributor Green Home Solutions for their continued excellent customer service.
More on Din Tai Fung from Forbes:
Conservative isn’t the word that comes to mind as bitesize Chinese dumplings explode with hot, salty juices in a diner’s mouth at a Din Tai Fung restaurant in Taipei. And it’s not the word after a glance around the noisy room, as hundreds of diners from across Asia and the West feast on chicken soups, spicy noodles, and giant green bottles of beer.
But owner Yang Chi-hua says a conservative philosophy of management and food preparation is what’s kept his chain of 63 restaurants in ten countries popular and profitable. The chain specializes in whitish, golf-ball-size dumplings packed with pork, chives, or shrimp, and there’s often a line outside the door. “They’re probably among the best dumplings in Asia,” says Alex Weng, 29, an American who lined up at a Din Tai Fung branch one October evening while on business in Taipei.Din Tai Fung restaurant in Taipei. And it’s not the word after a glance around the noisy room, as hundreds of diners from across Asia and the West feast on chicken soups, spicy noodles, and giant green bottles of beer.
The crowds aren’t surprising, given that the restaurant chain shows up in just about every travel guide to Taipei, ranking alongside the National Palace Museum and the world’s second-highest skyscraper on don’t-miss lists for tourists. Last year the five company-owned restaurants in Taiwan rang up $44 million in sales (a sixth location opened this year), and Yang says they traditionally boast a 30% profit margin, though he won’t release exact figures. Overall, the privately held company says it collected $150 million in revenue last year and has restaurants in ten countries that are popular and profitable. The chain specializes in whitish, golf-ball-size dumplings packed with pork, chives, or shrimp, and there’s often a line outside the door. “They’re probably among the best dumplings in Asia,” says Alex Weng, 29, an American who lined up at a Din Tai Fung branch one October evening while on business in Taipei.
The original restaurant opened in 1974, but Din Tai Fung’s story goes back much further. The founder, 86- year-old Yang Bing-yi, came to Taipei from China in 1948. After the bulk cooking oil delivery service that employed him shut down, he set up his own cooking-oil business in 1958. But by the 1970s he was losing business as cooking oil became available in tins and customers no longer needed to buy it in bulk. So he found a chef who happened to be good at dumplings and turned his delivery-service storefront into a restaurant. He retired ten years ago, happy that his original outlet had let his family prosper. “His goal was to raise his children,” says the younger Yang, the second of five siblings and, per Chinese tradition, heir to the business as the oldest boy. “He would say it was fine just to raise us with a good education. He was conservative.”
The single location did a solid business until 1993, which was fine with the father’s cautious ethic. But that year the New York Times named it one of the world’s top ten restaurants–and business boiled over. Expansion was inevitable.
So in 1996 Din Tai Fung–named after the failed cooking-oil business that had given the elder Yang his start–opened an outlet in Japan and earned a reputation there for authentic Chinese dumplings. Five years later a second Taipei restaurant opened. By then the Japanese were hooked, and other Asians were learning from them. “The fame simply fed on itself, as Asian tourists would seek out the restaurant for its name recognition,” says Taipei food blogger Jenna Cody. “If a place is supposed to be the best in something, [Japanese] will flock to it. They place a high premium on [going to] the best local place that prepares locally sourced food.” There are 12 restaurants in Japan now, twice as many as in Taiwan.
Japanese diners, known also for attention to detail such as sanitation and salt content, further inspired the chain to take a conservative approach to its 80-item menu. “Their flavors are not too sharp,” explains repeat customer Jyugo Kan, 47, a Japanese expatriate in Taipei. “Sanitation is better than at most restaurants in Taiwan–first in the kitchen, and then the tables are wiped very clean.”
The staff keeps every tabletop condiment container, right down to the sides of vinegar and soy sauce bottles, wiped clean enough to sparkle as five quality control checkers patrol the Taiwan restaurants. For safety and consistency, the management seeks out private channels for staples such as flour, pork, and chicken. It also lets customers watch through the glass as a dozen cooks in white suits bang out orders of dumplings served in traditional, stackable bamboo containers.
“We do our own noodles so we won’t let anything bad get into them. It’s a safe zone,” says the soft-spoken, formally dressed Yang, 55, in Mandarin, pausing regularly as if to sample each sentence before letting it go. “If something is not clean, customers won’t accept it. Look at this soy sauce,” he says, gesturing at a polished condiment bottle at his newest restaurant, a 330-seater in the basement of the Taipei 101 skyscraper. “Somewhere else you might see stains on the sides.”
Din Tai Fung’s first restaurant still displays the original signboard painted in the 1950s by a government official who had arranged the shop’s phone number, which was hard to get then and is still in use today. Now the operation has grown to include four company-owned and 53 franchised spots in China, Southeast Asia, and the U.S. Lines form at its stand at Shanghai’s Yuyuan Tourist Mart and Singapore’s Paragon mall.
The chain’s fame has been built more on viral marketing via guidebooks and referrals from one traveler to the next than efforts to outclass competitors with special recipes, says Joy Sung, a marketing expert with TNS Research International in Taiwan. And Din Tai Fung does no advertising in Taiwan. “They’ve largely become famous by word of mouth. The fact of it having been reported on TV seems to have given it enough credence for people to tell each other and to check it out.”
But the focus on freshness, true to the style of Chinese food centuries before refrigerators came around, keeps the cooks busy calibrating oil and spice levels to bring out the natural taste of the main ingredients, says Chang Fengtsai, head chef at the original restaurant, who has worked 25 years for the company. “If you put in too much or too little, it spoils the freshness,” he says. “We’re very strict about this.”
Yang also stresses the technique for keeping the thin flour skins of dumplings intact until eaten. “It’s hard to find a broken dumpling on our tables,” he says. “If you go to other restaurants, it’s hard not to find them. If one’s broken here, we replace it.”
Yang is in no hurry to keep expanding. He’s negotiating for a restaurant in San Francisco but hitting obstacles at other U.S. locations due to a lack of qualified staffers and a customer distaste for the hyperattentive service common in East Asia. It has canceled franchise deals in Hong Kong and Shenzhen because the owners were trying to grow too fast. The chain receives (and rejects) 20 letters a week from prospective franchisees in places as unlikely as Mongolia and Russia. “It’s hard to just do a good job as we are,” says Yang. “We’ve got so many people [1,200 food service workers just in Taiwan] that it’s hard to make sure they’re all doing their best. If you don’t do well but you have a lot of outlets, there’s no use, right?”
To keep up with the average output of 4,000 dumplings a day per restaurant, the chain in Taiwan monitors for any burnout in the fast-paced, high-pressure job. Each Taiwan restaurant averages 1,500 sit-down customers a day, plus take-out. On a busy day, as many as 10,000 people may visit the original 270- seat location. So workers may need counseling or massages available at every branch, Yang figures.
If neither of Yang’s two sons–one is in high school, the other in university– wants to take on the business someday, their father will understand. “I don’t know what they’re going to think later. It’s tough, and you run into problems,” he says. “Everyone’s under pressure. As the boss, I’m under it, too.”