Brooklyn Dumpling Shop May Ignite a Whole New Food Segment
Can Your Property Accommodate High-Tech Food Lockers?
The notion of Chinese dumplings as a grab-and-go food is innovative enough but fill them with unexpected ingredients and distribute them in high-tech food lockers and you may be on your way to launching a whole new food segment.
This may well be the case for Stratis Morfogen, founder of Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, who told LoopNet that his novel concept is being vigorously pursued by mall and shopping center owners across the U.S. With operating restaurants and kiosks already in place and a drive-thru design in development, he is expanding the concept to college towns, where this fetching fast food and unique delivery mechanism are likely to satisfy a college student’s hunger for both sustenance and whimsy.
The dumplings are filled with unconventional items such as bacon, egg and cheese or peanut butter and jelly, but this concept goes well beyond just food. The model borrows from the 1950s “automat,” a type of restaurant that sold food in cubbies with glass fronts that were essentially first generation vending machines. The concept checks many other boxes as well, including online ordering, digital access, contactless delivery, manageable portions (he called the dumplings two-ounce sandwiches) and 24-hour service.
As part of a series of articles focusing on future innovation in the restaurant industry, LoopNet conducted the following Q&A about this concept with Morfogen, a culinary professional that has opened more than 15 food concepts in his 33-year career.
Is this concept more about the automat or the dumplings?
That’s a good question. My career has been about the food, the service and the atmosphere. This is the first time that there's more attention on the technology, which is great, but I will never launch anything unless the food is at a very high level. At Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, it's been all about the technology, and then after the excitement of the technology wears off, we start saying no one's ever done a pastrami dumpling, a bacon cheeseburger dumpling or a gyro dumpling. And what ties it all together is that this food is perfect for the automat. There's so much innovation that by the time [potential investors] get through that aspect, they say, “hey, by the way, talk to me about the menu.”
Does all food lend itself to distribution in this format?
No. There are a couple of mistakes that other restaurateurs have made in the past, and some are making those mistakes as we speak. It should not be a fancy food. It should not be a casserole-type food. It's got to be something quick and on-the-go that you can eat from a little bag or a little tote. I think anything more than that loses its luster.
The novelty of your product and distribution system seem to make your concept appealing to shopping center and mall owners. Have they shown interest?
Yes. The business is in a very strong position both pre- and post-COVID because landlords want this concept in their properties. Firstly, it generates a great deal of press, and secondly, it's the future. Landlords are being very generous now and offering me excellent lease terms with very generous build-out allowances. We only do percentage leases, but the terms are up to my franchisees. Interest just hasn't stopped; all the landlords want a piece of it, from Related to Simon Property Group to Westfield.
In addition to a restaurant, I did a kiosk design and a drive-thru design. Basically, a kiosk is in the center of the shopping mall, and the automat is attached to it like a sliding door. It's basically all in a centralized kiosk that is roughly 8 feet wide by 11 feet long.
How many franchises do you have around the country?
We have about 150 that are in the bank, and we have another 50 that are waiting for FDD [franchise disclosure documents]. I'd say by the end of the year, we should have 250 franchises. There are about 60 locations in the New York tri-state area, and then we are in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Georgia; Florida; Texas; Northern California and Minnesota.
I will tell you that 80% or 90% of the businesses are going into college towns. That's the trend for Brooklyn Dumpling Shop: colleges. That’s how Domino's pizza and Chipotle started, and I see the same trend for Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, because what kid is not going to want a two-ounce sandwich?
Can you describe the two-ounce sandwich for us?
That's what these dumplings are at the end of the day, a two-ounce sandwich. Instead of sitting down and having one cheeseburger after going to a bar or out for the evening, someone could try two ounces of pastrami, two ounces of a bacon cheeseburger, two ounces of a lamb Jeera, or two ounces of a hot fudge sundae. They would still be within eight to 10 ounces of consumption — which is the size of just one cheeseburger — yet have four or five different flavors. That's what we're banking on, variety with small bites. If you can sit down with four or five friends and order several different flavors, it's more interesting and you can control how much you eat. It's a size that does not intimidate.
Is contactless service viewed as impersonal?
The problem with bringing the automat back is people don't get it. Companies using them have made a mistake. They place the boxes wall-to-wall and you're not supposed to do that. What we do at Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, regardless of whether the wall is 300 feet or 1200 feet long, is make half the room the automat, and half the room a glass kitchen where we have a dumpling-making machine so you can see the dumplings being prepared. One is a personal [experience], and one is impersonal. And if you don't have the balance of both, I think you're going to fail.
Here's the best feedback we get from customers. If there is not a greeter in the front, some people will walk out because it can be intimidating. With a greeter at the front, people will try it. The greeters bring people to the automat, and show them how to place an order by guiding them toward the buttons they need to press. I have really good greeters and they're well trained; people have said they have had one foot out the door, but because our greeter was so kind and so informative, they felt comfortable trying the place.
Another customer gave a toll booth analogy. She said at first, she was confused about how to place an order, but now she loves it. She said we actually changed her buying habits. She likened interacting with an order taker or cashier to interacting with a toll booth operator — we needed to in the past, but now that transponders exist, we'll never go back.
Would you categorize this as fast food or fast casual?
Who knows what fast casual really means, but if Chipotle is fast casual then that’s what Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is, though I think of Chipotle as fast food that is made fresh.
I will add, however, that “freezer” is not such a dangerous word when you're dealing with food on-the-run like this. I actually prefer sometimes that product is kept frozen because at least it's safe. I use only fresh ingredients at my tablecloth restaurants because I have qualified, seasoned chefs that have food handler permits and know how to handle product.
I'm against fresh, perishable foods in a fast-food setting [prepared by] entry-level employees. That's not a good combination because entry-level employees don't know how to handle that food. And when you grow at a fast pace, you’ve got to be careful with salmonella and high bacteria levels and how fresh product can be mishandled. When we sell the concept to the franchisees, we say, “you don't need cashiers, logistical staff, or a chef and you won’t need to manage fresh ingredients, some portion of which will go to waste.”
And remember, we're not sacrificing the quality or integrity of the dumpling to scalability. Even at Brooklyn Chop House where we make the dumplings fresh, we blast freeze them right away to capture the freshness so there is no crystallization on the dumpling. It is IQF [individually quick frozen]. The dumpling must be frozen before it goes into the steamer, because if not, it will fall apart. So, we are not changing anything for scalability, which makes this product and model easy to scale.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.