How One Restaurant Cracked the Code to Frozen Xiao Long Bao
Americans long subscribed to milk delivery services, and more recently to CSAs that drop vegetables at their house. And in the pandemic subscription services expanded, bringing monthly packages of tortillas and even xiao long bao to people's doorsteps. "We decided to just come up with a member box and put it on our site, partially as a joke," says Caleb Wang, one of the founders of Xiao Chi Jie. But the enthusiastic reaction to the small restaurant's subscription offering showed them the serious potential of their frozen soup dumplings.
While dumplings have long been a freezer staple, and more recently a common pandemic pivot — valued for the ease with which they transform from icy block to near-restaurant quality comfort food — xiao long bao, the delicate, soup-filled dumplings from Shanghai, rarely survive the freezing process. Their thin skins break and the liquid centers collapse as they reheat, leaving diners with a mess and subpar slurping. The fragility makes them all the more desirable, with food lovers seeking the dish out all over the world. But all it took for four second-generation Asian-American restaurateurs to make viable frozen XLB was the '90s internet staple MapQuest, radical customer service, and personally taste-testing thousands of dumplings.
Xiao Chi Jie's frozen XLB quickly went viral on WeChat, a Chinese social media app, and as the small restaurant in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue filled the mounting orders, Wang and his three co-founders improved each aspect of their process. In a year, they went from dropping paper bags of XLB on local doorsteps to flying slick, branded packages around the country, learning the ropes of manufacturing and shipping as they went.
They quickly learned how much horsepower each of their freezers had — and thus how many dumplings it could adequately freeze at one time. As they expanded delivery, they realized that Google Maps only allowed them to put in 10 stops per route — a problem they solved by going back to the early internet favorite of dads everywhere, MapQuest. Eventually, they got a crash course in dry ice as they transitioned to shipping nationally, a far cry from the small, focused street food restaurant they originally started in 2018.
"We wanted to bring a lot of the foods that we grew up eating in China that didn't really exist here," says co-founder Jennifer Liao. They started with one that Wang recalled fondly from his childhood in Shanghai: pan-fried soup dumplings called sheng jian bao, or SJB. "A big goal of ours was to make sure that it was representative of what you would have in China."
They recreated the specialized cast iron pans and range to make half-risen Shanghai-style SJB, then devised a business plan that tackled one of the toughest issues: the process made 80 dumplings at a time, and they needed to sell within 30 minutes. "All of this led us down this path of 'how do we be as technical as possible and do this in the right way?'" says Liao, a blueprint for their pandemic pivot.
When Covid-19 hit the U.S., Wang left his full-time job in finance and focused on keeping Xiao Chi Jie afloat. "Because we did all that work on the SJB, we knew we could make a best-in-class XLB as well, and so that's what we did." They began trying versions immediately, using fresh vs. frozen meat, different vendors, grind sizes, and other variables. But the key to creating a soup dumpling that held up to freezing came not in the kitchen, but through radical hospitality.
If the dumplings don't arrive quickly enough or run out of dry ice, the dough can melt, ruining the integrity of the product and its taste, explains Liao. So instead of letting customers feel they were taking that risk, they actively took on that responsibility, reaching out to customers to ask, "Hey did it melt?" If they learn any dumplings didn't arrive exactly how they intended, then they send out a new bag — sometimes before customers find the problem themselves.
The tight feedback loop keeps customers happy, but also allows them to constantly improve the dumplings and make any adjustments to the small batches, particularly as they scale up. "You make the dough two hours earlier and all of a sudden you're getting a couple more dough complaints," says Wang. "We're literally catching any errors that can happen within a day or two, and then we're just making it right, re-shipping it."
By doing that, they sidestep the issues that plague the mediocre commercial frozen soup dumplings on the market — the stagnant recipe required to use a co-packer or manufacturer. Making the dumplings themselves in small batches gives them the freedom to make those quick adjustments.
To make the most dumplings as quickly as possible, Wang explains, you have to use liquid nitrogen at really low temperatures, pumping the dumplings through a tunnel freezer. "Because that's not our number one goal," says Wang, they can either freeze the dumplings in a walk-in freezer or use liquid nitrogen for a longer period of time. The slower freezing process allows them to use a thinner dough — one of the hallmarks of a great soup dumpling. Wang estimates that other frozen XLB products use a dough ratio twice theirs, which is about ¼ skin to ¾ filling. It would crack immediately in the standard liquid nitrogen and tunnel freezer process, he says. "The compromise is on the ratio and then also the amount of soup that you can put in the dumpling."
But Xiao Chi Jie is not a company that makes compromises — not even to sell a frozen version of their signature sheng jian bao. "We can get it to 80- to 90-percent integrity," says Liao. But it requires home cooks to fry and steam at the same time — a potentially frustrating experience they aren't willing to let their customers have.
Instead, they recently launched a chicken version, hope to get their new dan dan noodle kit out by Labor Day, and are working on vegetarian soup dumplings. "That's been our number one request," says Liao, but creating one forced them to look back at their original mission as a restaurant. Since the gelatin that solidifies to allow the soup to go in the dumpling is a meat product, they can't aim to recreate the experience they remember from China. "We are going through the question of 'What is authentic?'" Liao says. "What's honest representation of Chinese food?"