Popular Dumpling Eatery Still Struggles to Make a Profit

Mr. Chen, the owner of Great Taste Dumpling, is one of many immigrant small business owners who may seem successful on the surface, but underneath those 18-hour days, he can barely break even. (Photo by Anelise Chen/OpenCity)

An article in Open City, reposted by Feet in 2 Worlds, profiled Mr. Chen, the owner of Great Taste Dumpling in Brooklyn, a popular eatery whose dumpling fame came as a surprise to the Chinese immigrant at the helm of the restaurant.

Great Taste Dumpling, formerly known as Prosperity Dumpling, sits on Eighth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, in Sunset Park. Once a desolate street, it now moves with activity thanks to many Chinese stores, restaurants, customers and business people – which is fitting as “8” is a lucky numbers in Chinese culture.

The dumpling eatery, which opened three years ago, has caught the attention of “hipsters, grad students and neighborhood foodies,” with its “five dumplings for a dollar” deal. Mr. Chen, 41, could only talk at 11 p.m., near the end of an 18-hour shift. He wanted to know why the reporter, Anelise Chen, was interested in interviewing him: “Can you just tell me — why my business? We are such a small business, not a big deal.” The conversation proceeded:

“But you’re one of the most well-known places in New York for dumplings,” I said.

There was a brief silence on the other line, then an incredulous laugh, or a choking sound not unlike a hoarse sob.

“I had no idea,” he almost lamented.

“You don’t know about your reputation online? I asked.

“How can I? I don’t have time to look at the computer. I get home so late, and I wake up so early, I barely have time to sleep. I only sleep five to six hours a day.”

“So you really don’t know that you’re one of the best places in New York to eat dumplings?”

“No.”

“Do you know you’re on Yelp?”

“What?”

“But don’t a lot of  waiguoren (foreigners) eat at your store?”

“Yes, a lot.”

“But you thought they were just walking by?”

“I never thought about it. Once, a waiguoren came and he had printed out something that had our name and phone number and address. That was the only time I knew anything had been written about us.”

But despite Mr. Chen’s newly-discovered “fame,” the reality remains that he is “barely breaking even” despite working such long days.

At five dumplings for a dollar, he said, there was no profit to be made. Which is why he clocks the long hours. As for days off? Never, not even on Chinese New Year. And he has kept to this schedule for three years. With the profit they were making, they could only afford to hire two people, and of course, he has to do most of the work himself.

“If we could sell four dumplings for a dollar, then we might make a real profit,” he said. “But at five for a dollar, we are only just surviving. It’s not even for money that we have this deal; it’s just for the advertisement. After we get a strong customer base, then we can consider selling four dumplings for a dollar. Someday, we will be able to sell four.”

The reporter brought up a study this year by the Fiscal Policy Institute, which found that 36 percent of small business owners in New York were immigrants, twice the national percentage. However, success is not a given, as these numbers often reflect the struggling lives of people like Mr. Chen and other immigrant business owners on Eighth Avenue and around the five boroughs.

As it turns out, the reality of the immigrant entrepreneur’s experience, despite the studies and statistics that denote success, is this: a lot of hard work and uncertainty. David Kallick, the principal writer of the FPI study, said that immigrant entrepreneurs are sometimes forced into their roles. “Immigrants sometimes have a hard time finding their way into a regular job that pays benefits and has stability, and they start businesses because they have no other choice,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a happy ending to that story. Sometimes it works out better for them. Sometimes it doesn’t.” Many scholars have also noted that immigrants choose self-employment because language barriers and discrimination have historically blocked upward mobility for non-natives.

Whether an immigrant small business owner ends up successful or not, for many, they do the grueling work for their children – in Mr. Chen’s case, his 14-year-old son: “As a father you always want your child to surpass you,” he said. “Maybe someone’s father was a farmer, and then his son became a business owner. I hope my son becomes someone better than me. I don’t know what that will be, but I hope it will be better.”

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