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Barbara Leung of Nom Wah
Issue 28: On preserving New York's Chinatown, authenticity, and building a consumer business in a pandemic.
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Nom Wah is New York City’s oldest dim sum parlor and has been in business for over 100 years. It started as a bakery in 1920 serving buns but later shifted into dim sum parlor. It’s currently owned by Wilson Tang who took over ownership in 2011 from his Uncle Wally who started working there in the 50s, and who had purchased the restaurant from the Choy family in 1974.
Barbara Leung, Nom Wah’s Head of Marketing and Operations, has been working for Nom Wah for nearly a decade and I talked to her about Nom Wah's role in preserving New York's Chinatown, authenticity, and building a consumer goods business in a pandemic.
Brianna Plaza: So do you want to tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do at Nom Wah?
Barbara Leung: What don't I do? I've actually been working with Wilson, the owner of Nom Wah, for the last nine years. I started handling our Facebook and Twitter accounts and then working a little bit on our website. Eventually, I started taking on more responsibilities, like marketing and some press. Then gradually, a lot more business operations as well - especially as the business has grown to include more locations. I’ve been able to bring my knowledge from the corporate world to working in restaurants.
Brianna Plaza: Sounds like you have a background in marketing and media?
Barbara Leung: I have a funny background actually. I have a background in very hands-on, tactical stuff for marketing, especially on the digital side of things. I also have a background in graphic design, so I kind of go soup to nuts in terms of the whole sales cycle. I’ve also worked in sales selling campaign programs to the first generation of influencers, like the mommy bloggers.
I have that understanding of the big picture and of the sales funnel, so that I'm able to bring a lot of that into Nom Wah. We have a lot of upper funnel stuff from all the press and that's great, but how exactly do we convert that into lower funnel to get people into the restaurant? Then what happens post experience? Did you leave happy? Do you want to take something with you? Where does that brand extend beyond just a dining experience - do you want to buy merch or frozen goods and take the experience home with you?
Brianna Plaza: Was there a consumer business before the pandemic?
Barbara Leung: It was kind of a back burner thing, actually. We tried it out many years ago, and we didn't know what we were doing. We thought if we just put stuff in a jar and sold it, that's okay. Apparently it's not. It was one of those things where we have to do a lot of reading to figure all of this out. Then we found out about co-packing, then we had to figure out how to transport a sample run. So, we just left it to the wayside because we have a lot of other responsibilities.
But when the pandemic hit, everything went out the window. Our first run of chili oil jars, it was just me and Wilson and his cousin just sitting there, kind of like meth dealer with the little scale, figuring out what tare is, figuring out like the density of oil, and how that weight is different than what I measure water as, then just reading what I need to put in the label. Cornell has a great food business incubator website that has a lot of resources available that we referenced a lot. We’d be like “Okay. So, I need to put the logo here. I have to put this panel here. I can put this nutrition panel here."
The frozen items were really a pipe dream and we didn’t know how to execute it. I would go to the grocery store and just take pictures of all the other similar products and match up with the Cornell guides and be like, "Okay, I need to put this, this, this, and this. This is how they do it. They measure it by weight, they don't measure it by pieces. Okay. I got that."
But the genesis of actually selling these items really came from people stockpiling groceries, right? There's also only so much that you want to cook at home. So, we waited for them to tire themselves out and then they started ordering a lot of takeout. Well, there's also only so much takeout you can order. So, it became, what if we offer the concept of, you can eat Nom Wah at home just whenever you feel like, versus having to make a whole Door Dash order out of it. Like getting a whole meal set that you don't really want to eat right now, when all you really want is four pieces, but you gotta make it worth it because that minimum and that tip and all the fees that are associated with it, they get so much more expensive.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think that you'll expand your consumer offerings?
Barbara Leung: It's all about scalability and it's difficult to scale other items, especially when we’re using machines. We’ve had some not quite positive reception to our frozen items. Which, okay. First of all, they're frozen, and if I handmade everything for you, it would be at least a half hour from start to finish per order and I don't think you want to wait for that. Second, people think about machine-made being okay in a lot of settings, but for some reason, people are very fixated on ethnic food being this handmade, laborious process and are dismay when they see that our frozen Har Gow (shrimp dumplings) don't have the traditional pleats because they’re made from a mold.
But what people don't consider is that there’s a lot of technique that's actually required to make that dough. You have to understand the chemistry, the intricacies of it, and the adjustments you actually might need to make in order to feed that dough through the machine to have it actually usable and cookable. At the same time, you can't just dump any filling you want in a machine. Because that machine has to do so many other things at the same time. When it presses it out, you don't want something too dense, you don't want something too soft. There's a lot of quality insurance involved.
It’s kind of like pasta, right? When you go to an Italian restaurant and you order pasta, some of it is handmade but they’re also using machines as a tool, and they understand how these tools work to actually produce the product. If they were hand making pasta all day, every day, it would take hours for you to be served and that isn't practical. I think people are just so hung up on this fantasy of what it means to eat authentically.
I often entertain this idea of authenticity and what it actually means because I see so many people who are like, “Well I am Chinese and this isn’t authentic.” I’m like, “Who are you to say what’s authentic? I am telling you the story of my experience, and you don’t get to invalidate my history just because it doesn’t match what your grandma made when you were two.”
Brianna Plaza: Nom Wah is the oldest dim sum parlor in New York. What role and responsibility does the restaurant take, if any, in preserving the neighborhood and the industry of Chinese American restaurants and dim sum parlors around New York?
Barbara Leung: I think we’d like to keep the old New York. But at the same time we can't exactly stay the same. We have to adapt and change because people want more fast-casual options. We used to have mint beef meatballs on the menu, but not a lot of people don’t like them because they have a certain texture and a certain taste, like the water chestnuts in it, that aren't just for everyone. I personally hate them, it's just not a thing that I liked growing up as a kid when my dad ordered them. I think for us, it's being very in-the-know about the neighborhood, the openings, and all the local businesses that are there, and supporting them.
I think support works in many ways. We may not necessarily be the most vocal. You may not always see us at an event or at a march or anything. I think it's in part because we want to empower the people that are really good at what they do.
Brianna Plaza: Asian American businesses were disproportionately affected, especially before the pandemic really settled in on New York. How did that change your business? How has that changed nearly two years into this? And how do you see this overall giant shift in our world affecting Nom Wah and how it grows?
Barbara Leung: To come back to your previous question about how exactly we are supporting Chinatown - we're actually more press friendly than other restaurants. I would think because we have a good command of English, we understand both worlds very well. If you've seen the Grub Street piece or the Bon Appétit pieces where Wilson's talking about, "You really shouldn't be afraid, you can just come down here. Let me show you the places that I like and enjoy." That's how we leverage our platform, to be able to share Chinatown with the masses.
With the amount of xenophobia, it is very apparent that race is still very much a problem. That it blew up the model minority myth that a lot of people still have in their mind as fact. That was a very harsh reminder of where we are in America and how we're seen in America. I think, being in New York, you're sometimes in a little bit of a bubble, especially if you're living in a diverse part of the city. Recently, when I went to middle America, I didn't see as many faces that look like me. That's a very stark reminder. It's very hard for me to find the food that I grew up with outside New York City.
The pandemic really reshaped a lot of restaurants in the sense that, where all other businesses are taught, and we're taught as kids to not put all our eggs in one basket, restaurants literally do put all the eggs in one basket with only one model of business, which is to sell food. Sure, they diversify their revenue by selling food via delivery, but it's still the same item at the end of the day. I think with a lot of people that left New York during the pandemic, that pool was definitely finite. So, for us, it was really learning that, yes, when the good times are good, we can do very well. But when the times are bad, what is our backup plan? And we kind of had to think of one.
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