Thanks to Steamies, dumplings are a family affair and a farmers market staple
For Cindy and Leslie Chee and their daughters, Kaitlyn and Avery, dumplings are a family business.
“We had no plan whatsoever to start a dumpling business when we moved here,” Chee says.
She’d worked in accounting for about a decade in Montreal, where her husband worked at IBM and his family ran a few Chinese restaurants.
With their young daughters, they moved to Texas for Leslie Chee’s job, and although there were plenty of Chinese restaurants, none of them were serving the kind of dumplings the Chee family was craving.
Every culture has dumplings, but in China, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties and fillings.
“Food was always what I liked to do,” she says, “so we thought, ’Let’s start something.’”
Chee says they started making dumplings at home to take to local restaurants to see if they might sell them wholesale, but after they didn’t get much response, the parents decided to take another path.
They’d been to the farmers markets here and noticed a lot of vendors selling prepared foods, so they decided to apply for the Texas Farmers’ Markets at Mueller and Lakeline Mall.
Over the past year, Steamies Dumplings has built up a loyal following with three main dumplings: chicken and shitake, pork and cabbage and a vegan dumpling made with seitan, carrots, cabbage and mushrooms. Chee also makes seasonal dumplings, which most recently was a coconut red Thai curry dumpling.
Nora Chovanec, deputy director of Texas Farmers’ Market, said that they get a lot of applications to sell hot food at the market, but Steamies stood out because of the uniqueness of their product and the passion for using vegetables from local farmers and meat from area ranchers, including Smith and Smith.
Chovanec says that markets used to be where customers shopped mostly for ingredients that they’d take home to cook, but modern market shoppers want to eat or drink something fresh while they are there, too. Steamies gives customers the chance to enjoy dumplings at the market and then take some home to make themselves, she says.
It’s not uncommon for food businesses to use farmers markets as a small business incubator to test out an idea and see if there’s enough interest to make the product viable.
Rather than pursue distribution in grocery stores, though, Cindy and Leslie Chee decided to open a storefront, which not only allows them to sell to customers during more hours of the week but also to increase production.
Chee says they won’t serve hot dumplings at the store, 6929 Airport Blvd., but customers will be able to choose from an expanded menu when the storefront opens in the next few weeks. She is working on several new dumplings: a pan-fried soup bun called sheng jian bao, open-faced shumai steamed buns, steamed soup dumplings, which are called xiao long bao, and wontons.
Most of the dumplings on Steamies’ current menu are meant to be fried in a little oil for a few minutes and then steamed with a lid on the pan for another 8 to 10 minutes. Each package comes with a dozen dumplings and instructions on how to cook them. (You can order the dumplings online for delivery, too, through steamiesdumplings.com.)
“Shoppers love the ability to get to know the people who grow their food, but also the people who make their food,” Chovanec says.
In this case, customers get to meet the whole family.
Cindy Chee says that Kaitlyn, who is now 10, and Avery, 7, have been at nearly every market with their parents, and they’ve learned so much more than how to set up a booth or run a credit card.
“It’s a practical choice to bring (the kids) to the market because we’ll both be there, but at the same time, we want them to be involved.” They’ve learned business ethics, marketing, food safety and how to interact with customers who might not have cooked dumplings at home.
“They are introverts to start off with, but they are now pretty outgoing,” she says.