This Coho Q&A feature is on the Dumpling King, one of our members that works out of our commissary kitchens. They specialize in hand folded, small batch, frozen dumplings with ingredients sourced from Vancouver’s Chinatown.
The dumpling shop offers the classic pork belly and scallion dumpling, with a glug of Johnnie Walker Black Label in the juicy filling. The Dumpling King has been featured on the likes of CBC, CTV, the Vancouver Sun, the Province, Daily Hive, Montecristo Magazine.
This is from an interview we did with Matthew Murtagh-Wu, the owner of the Dumpling King.
Coho: What’s the origin story of the Dumpling King?
Matt: I left a career in finance, I’ve always wanted to cook since I was a little boy. I worked in some restaurants after I left the bank, was a private chef for a bit, and wanted to cook the way I wanted in a way I felt comfortable doing. So I started messing around with dumplings. It’s not only a shelf stable product that’s easy for people who aren’t used to eating traditional Chinese cuisine to understand. That was five years ago.
(Source: Sofia Kuan)
Coho: And what’s your story?
Matt: My father is from Hong Kong and mother is from Victoria, and I grew up in Vancouver. Because of my mixed-race identity, my entire life has been an effort for me to engage with that Chinese side. In university, I studied Chinese history and Chinese thought, I traveled to China and went to university in Taiwan, and went back and forth over the course of ten years. I’m not Taiwanese but I love that country.
As for the business, it’s sort of a step towards self-actualization for me. Asserting identity and people trusting me when I cook something, it’s honest and earnest, and the dimension of that business is linked to a neighborhood in Vancouver. I source the pork from Chinatown, I’m transparent about what’s done to it and where it’s from.
Coho: Why source from Chinatown?
Matt: My dad worked at a bank in Chinatown and my grandma had a salon there. It’s a place where there are these different worlds within it, and in the 21st century where there’s so many things changing, people should also think about supporting these businesses in Chinatown.
We have juice bars, trendy cafes and bars, and they add to the neighborhood and that’s great, but we shouldn’t forget that these old grocers and medicine shops do deserve our dollar, and oftentimes the produce is of better quality and is cheaper than our supermarkets. Perhaps the aesthetic of the place doesn’t make people feel comfortable, and I don’t want to say it’s a losing battle, but it does take a bit of effort to support local.
(Source: Hakan Burcuoglu)
Coho: So why did you choose a commissary kitchen to kickstart your business?
Matt: With my business model, you can’t run this out of a restaurant. I looked at restaurants and to use their spaces at night, but commissary kitchens are really the first-time business owner’s only choice to test a concept out. It was the only viable option for me to be honest. Coho’s plans are relatively affordable, like half a day, part-time, and as we’ve seen through Covid, brick and mortar locations have had a very hard time and the overhead is crazy.
Coho: What’s the hardest thing about growing a business during the pandemic?
Matt: You’re at the whim of trivial things and it stands in the way of growth. It’s Covid, and shifting the business model where I need to constantly pivot the business, and I’m left wondering: “Am I a food producer or am I a small direct sales business?” It’s always unprecedented times. Coho did their best during the pandemic, they helped us find grants and loans, and went above and beyond to help us negotiate these tough times.
(Source: Matthew McTaggart)
Coho: And what about scaling up your business? What challenges do you face?
Matt: With growth comes the challenge of stepping over producers, where they won’t be able to give me what I want. I want to stick to the formula of creating this bespoke, handmade, hyper locally-sourced food. And I’m not sure how to retain identity and honesty in the food that I make as I grow. In the beginning of the pandemic, I changed my business from direct sales, where I communicated with every customer by email. I didn’t even have my first employee until a year ago. It’s such a grind every day, we make every dumpling by hand. If we grow, the challenge facing us is: “Do we get a machine? Do we automate? If we do, that might completely destroy the ethos of the brand.”
Coho: What’s it like working in the commissary?
Matt: The community is made up of 30 other businesses, and some of us have become great friends - we’re hustling, grinding, and if deliveries come, we’ll accept them for our friends and bring them over. There’s some camaraderie in there, and aside from the grind, we’re working together to build our businesses in that space. It can get crazy in there, but it’s fun though.
Coho: What kind of collaboration do you see within the commissary?
Matt: If you put a bunch of crazy food business owners together in a building, eventually people are going to strike deals, and there really are many deals being struck between different businesses. It’s amazing to see that there’s this sub-economy of people, working with or for each other, just trying to get by.
For example, there’s a lot of co-packing that’s going on in there. Menus are produced by other businesses, sometimes we share workers that work part-time for other businesses. Sometimes I just need help and I’ll call people to put things on a shelf for me. It’s all these little things that show that we have each other’s backs. Some businesses will even collaborate on a product, event, or a cool food item. People are scheming in a positive way. When you put hustlers in a building, they’re going to work together - cooperation versus competition!
Coho: How is Coho different from other commissaries?
Matt: There’s a social dimension to the business in general, but I think Coho has a bigger view to not just be a landlord. Some commissary owners think they’ll just build the space, get the revenue from the businesses, and that’s going to be it. While Coho is making an earnest effort to engage. Coho has been tapped to tell these stories, to reimagine what it means to be a giant shared kitchen owner, to celebrate and champion their tenants. Whether it’s working in the cafe, doing pop-ups, these BIPOC business owner events, this can be called reimagining and it’s updating what it means to be a shared kitchen owner.
I feel that they are ahead of the curve on that. I think it’s smart that they reach out to their vendors, work with them, because at the end of the day, you own a space, invest in it. While you can just let people cook out of it, the whole marketing dimension, to tell these stories, it takes a lot of effort. It’s commissary ownership 2.0 and I don’t see anyone in the city doing it like this at this point.
Want to try Matt's dumplings?
We carry Matt's locally-sourced, hand folded dumplings on Coho Market, our online shop. Choose from the pork belly and scallion to the Taiwanese-style dumplings. They come in frozen packs of 30, and all you have to do is toss them in the wok, steam and pan fry and they'll come out perfectly silky and crispy.