Everyone in food pivoted during the pandemic. But most haven’t found the same success that Jennifer Liao and Caleb Wang did after transitioning their Bellevue, Washington, restaurant, Xiao Chi Jie, into a thriving modern Chinese food brand of the same name. Now rebranded as MìLà, their frozen food company recently received an influx of $22.5 million in Series A funding. Its main draw? Frozen xiao long bao, available in three flavors, shipped quickly and across the country.
After these soup dumplings spend 11 minutes in a steamer, it’s hard to believe they came out of a dry-ice-filled cardboard box. The frozen balls transform into shiny, pleated pockets, plump with pork and soup. Xiao long bao via Seamless are rarely as good, their skins torn and forms deflated after being jostled around in a takeout container. Even the soup dumplings from Trader Joe’s, which have helped popularize the notoriously laborious xiao long bao in homes nationwide, don’t have quite as delicate a wrapper texture or as bouncy a meat filling.
In the United States, the frozen food category is rapidly expanding: Between 2018 and 2022, its sales rose from $52.8 billion to $72.2 billion, according to the American Frozen Food Institute. That’s due to a few factors: the pandemic; inflation; a push toward more frozen food options, like plant-based products; and increased interest in frozen food from millennials. It’s no wonder that so many restaurant owners are now seeing the potential in frozen goods, with premium frozen dumplings a perfect case study. For some, it’s a way to diversify income streams; for others, it’s an alternative in an unstable industry. For shoppers, it’s undeniable that frozen dumplings are getting better, more diverse, and more accessible, no matter where you’re located.
MìLà’s origin story has little to do with frozen xiao long bao. Liao, who previously worked in health tech, and Wang, who worked in finance, opened Xiao Chi Jie in 2018. They were motivated by a craving for sheng jian bao, the panfried, soup-filled buns they’d enjoyed in Wang’s hometown of Shanghai. The restaurant, they figured, would be a way to eat the street food they missed but struggled to find locally; Liao says the name Xiao Chi Jie refers to an alley full of street food.
But then, COVID happened. “We wanted to make sure that we could keep people employed, so we started testing soup dumplings,” Liao says. They made small batches, froze them, and dropped them off on doorsteps, finding interested diners on WeChat and Facebook. The dumplings were a hit, and within a year, Xiao Chi Jie was not just a restaurant but also a growing frozen food brand, launching direct-to-consumer dumplings in the summer of 2021. By the end of 2022, it had sold upwards of 13 million dumplings nationwide. And with the company poised for even more growth, Liao and Wang rebranded the frozen line from Xiao Chi Jie to MìLà (a combination of the Chinese words for “honey” and “spice”) earlier this year.
One reason MìLà has been so nimble, Liao explains, is because of its vertically integrated model. “We own the machinery. We have a facility where we produce and manufacture [the dumplings],” she says. The main downside is space — the company has hit capacity at its factory and needs to expand — but the benefit is creative control: over the flour, the thickness of the dough, the temperature at which the dumplings are frozen. “That’s been super important for us to maintain because it allows us to create the exact product we want,” Liao says. It’s possible to quickly change the recipe or launch limited-edition drops; retail moves more slowly.
To ensure the quality of its dumplings, MìLà offers a “Melt-Free Guarantee.” Because pulling apart frozen-together dumplings would risk tearing their skins, bags that arrive with signs of thawing warrant shoppers a free replacement. Part of that is because online ordering expands the company’s reach. While people in food hubs like New York City and LA might be well-acquainted with xiao long bao, it’s likely that some shoppers will be trying xiao long bao — or even Chinese food — for the first time, Liao explains. “We want to make sure that we represent that really well and hit that first experience out of the park,” she says.
This pandemic-to-frozen-dumpling pipeline isn’t uncommon, though many producers are operating on a smaller scale than MìLà. In the early days of Los Angeles’s Woon Kitchen, Keegan Fong’s pop-up-turned-restaurant that opened in 2019, serving dumplings “was a really hard thing to do logistically because it took so many resources and so much manpower,” Fong says. With extra time in early 2020, his mom started making as many dumplings as she could. But without a staff to both make dumplings in-house and cook them for service, “we started selling them frozen because that seemed like the only way to get them out there,” Fong says.
Fong had always wanted people to “have Woon in their homes,” but the pandemic accelerated his timeline. In addition to making its frozen dumplings available at local retailers, Woon began, like many restaurants, to sell and ship pantry staples like soy sauce and seasonings. Today, Woon produces 1,200 dumplings a week, 80 percent of which are frozen for wholesale. A lot has changed in a few years: Woon now has enough staff that it can serve the dumplings weekly in-house. Eventually, Fong hopes to ship frozen dumplings widely, but for now, the restaurant, which is getting a second location soon, remains his priority.
For some owners, a dumpling company is preferable to a restaurant in key logistical ways. The Washington, D.C.-based Laoban previously focused on brick-and-mortar dumpling shops. In 2020, it had four, with two more planned for that year; now it’s down to one. “There’s just a lot that goes into it, with the real estate and the space and the staffing,” says co-founder and CEO Patrick Coyne. “There’s a very heavy human component, which is what makes it so great but also what makes it so hard.” Frozen dumplings have been a “smoother path to scale,” he says. Relying on grocery stores like Whole Foods for distribution from the start, “we’ve had an easier time getting more dumplings out there to more people,” Coyne says.
Boston chef and entrepreneur Irene Li followed a similar path: Beginning in 2020, she pivoted Mei Mei, the food truck-turned-restaurant that she’d started with her siblings, into a dumpling company. Li closed Mei Mei’s dining room, then opened a dumpling factory this past January. While Mei Mei’s dumplings are currently available only locally, the company plans to one day sell them nationwide. Manufacturing offers a business model that “feels sustainable in a way that, you know, restaurant life is not,” Li told the Boston Globe, also noting that the factory’s cafe has limited hours, which better suits its workers’ needs.
For all of its upsides, this line of work is not without its challenges. As the frozen food market grows, there’s plenty of competition, both to get on grocery store shelves and stay there, Coyne says. On top of that is the inherently finicky nature of frozen food. “You’re relying on your distribution partners to handle products appropriately and keep everything frozen along the entire supply chain,” Coyne says. His sense of higher fidelity to the grocery store frozen supply chain is why Laoban decided to go that route instead of direct to consumer, or DTC.
Not every brand that’s attempted to get frozen dumplings off the ground has found it worthwhile. In March, the condiment brand Fly by Jing ended its fledgling frozen dumpling line. “We sold a lot of dumplings last year,” says founder Jing Gao. But since frozen food requires a different set of supply chain logistics, her team was essentially running two separate businesses. While the frozen line was doing well, it was pulling down the profitability of the company as a whole, she explains. “Frozen is just very difficult, especially if you don’t own your own manufacturing,” she says.
And while DTC has boomed in recent years, many brands that first found success with this model are staking their presence in traditional retail as well. For Liao, part of MìLà’s mission is to increase access: to foods that already exist in the U.S. but can be hard to find, to foods that are popular abroad but less common here; and to new foods informed by her and Wang’s third-culture perspective. As such, the company is considering retail much more this year, with plans to enter select Costco locations soon, following in the footsteps of brands like Fishwife and Omsom, which are in Whole Foods, and Fly By Jing, now carried by Target.
For a frozen product like dumplings, grocery offers lower barriers to entry than dealing with high shipping costs online (it takes an order of $99 or more to get free shipping from MìLà). It’s more likely people will see a new brand in stores and try it on a whim. “Being on a shelf is a billboard for your brand,” Gao says. “For food, I think more and more, it has to be where you play the most in order to grow.”
Emily Chu is a illustrator, muralist, and visual artist based in Edmonton, Canada.