At Arcadia restaurant Din Tai Fung, the journey to eating its famous dumplings often begins with a long wait in line.
On weekends, customers wait for hours to get in the door.
San Marino resident Miriam Nakamura-Quan said the food is worth the wait.
“It’s a necessity. There’s nothing in the savory department that comes close to this or even in the dumpling department that comes close to this,” Nakamura-Quan said.
The restaurant’s specialty is xiao long bao, a juicy pork dumpling that shoots out bursts of flavorful broth with every bite. Chefs train for four months to learn how to make the dumpling. The skilled can make five of the dumplings a minute. The kitchen moves at lightning speeds to keep up with demand, producing thousands of dumplings a day.
The whole process is seamless at the restaurant, with curious customers watching the entire process unfold through a window. But the Din Tai Fung dumpling empire was decades in the making.
It all started in Taiwan
In 1958 Ping Yi Yang started his own peanut oil company in Taipei, Taiwan. He named his new business “Din Tai Fung.” “Din” after where he bought his oils wholesale at “Din Mei Oils” and “Tai Fung” to commemorate “Heng Tai Fung,” a company where he’d recently lost a job.
But the peanut oil business dwindled in the late 1970s, when more Taiwanese customers purchased their oil from the grocery store. Ping Yi Yang ended up hiring a chef from a restaurant that shut down and that chef started to make xiao long bao for Din Tai Fung. The Yang family worked to perfect the recipe, and the dumplings became a hit.
“It’s all just out of luck,” said Frank Yang, Ping Yi's son. “Actually, my father’s idea of opening up a restaurant was just to get by. His idea was to do whatever he can to raise his five kids.”
Over time, the restaurant generated more customers by word of mouth, and writers from Japan and The New York Times raved about the dumplings, generating even more buzz. Stopping by Din Tai Fung in Taiwan became a must for Japanese tourists, Yang said.
That led to the first Din Tai Fung outside of Taiwan. It opened on the upper floor of a department store in Japan in 1996.
“The department store opened at 10 a.m. Everybody would just wait on the first floor, and once the department store opened, they [would] just run straight to the 10th floor. That [happened] for a couple of months,” Yang said.
Besides customers, the Japanese chefs also brought more systematic kitchen training to Din Tai Fung. In the past, apprentices would be taught to smell the dough in order to determine if it was on par with the recipe. The Japanese chefs brought scientific measurements to determine that, which later became part of Din Tai Fung’s training, Yang said.
The first restaurant in the U.S. opened in 2000 in Arcadia, where 59 percent of the population is Asian or Asian-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With a growing Asian-American population eager for a taste of home, business boomed. Yang's two Arcadia locations net him $8 million in sales each year.
Over time, the demographic of Yang's customers has changed. When the Arcadia restaurant opened, 80 percent of Din Tai Fung’s customers were Asian. Today it’s 50 percent Asian.
Now the business is expanding to Glendale, where 71 percent of the population is white. Yang believes the demand is there.
“We are so busy, it doesn’t matter weekday or weekend,” Yang said. “The clientele to support Din Tai Fung is not from Arcadia; it’s from all over.”
"I can't say enough about the people who already know about it," said Werner Escher, South Coast Plaza's executive director of domestic and international markets. "You talk about a big department store being a draw, this little 8,000 square foot restaurant is going to be an incredible draw."
That’s not to say that Din Tai Fung and other chains won’t tweak their business to cater to a wider audience. The new Southern California locations will have full bars.