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Growing up in Tianjin, a northern China port city known for steamed buns and other doughy dishes, Qinghong Zhang learned dumplings were a time-intensive group activity, often saved for special occasions and important holidays.

"When my family had a big event, we made dumplings," Zhang, 67, said.

Now decades after her family moved to the U.S., her son and daughter-in-law are growing that tradition beyond her imagination. Peter Bian and his wife, Linda Cao, are using Instagram to sell thousands of dumplings each week to people across the Twin Cities, sharing Zhang's recipes as well as more unique fillings like brisket and pumpkin, braised short rib and Middle Eastern hashweh, a spiced rice and meat mixture.

Within just two years, Saturday Dumpling Co. has grown from a pandemic pastime to a booming business, bringing in about $10,000 to $15,000 in revenue from selling as many as 10,000 of their frozen folded pockets of goodness each week for pickup and at-home cooking. The duo's next goal is to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant.

The American dream and immigrants' overall contribution to the economy has long been a U.S. hallmark. But what Zhang and Bian, 38, prove is how that story doesn't stop at one generation. The children of those newcomers continue the plot in unexpected and innovative ways.

"We have one foot in China, one foot firmly planted in the U.S., and we're navigating both worlds," Bian said. "We found this sweet spot where we understand both cultures and understand how to thrive in both."

Coming to America

From Tianjin, fewer than 100 miles south of Beijing, Bian moved with his family to the U.S. when he was a toddler. His father, Yanjie Bian, relocated to pursue a doctorate in sociology, a study China had previously banned for decades, making it hard for the elder Bian to find a suitable teacher.

The family eventually settled in the Twin Cities when Yanjie Bian secured a teaching job at the University of Minnesota. Zhang, a factory human resources director in China, ran the household.

She cooked authentic Chinese cuisine for the family, including dumplings, which Bian and his younger brother would eat for birthdays and Chinese New Year.

Freshly cooked dumplings from Saturday Dumpling Co.
Freshly cooked dumplings from Saturday Dumpling Co.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

For a couple years, the family moved to Hong Kong when Yanjie Bian was on sabbatical, which also helped cement Peter Bian's love of Chinese cooking before returning stateside.

After he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a biology degree, Peter Bian helped start an independent MRI clinic in Plymouth, something his own struggles with low-back pain inspired as well as his desire to help people who normally couldn't afford care.

After about a decade, Bian sold his stake in the business in 2019, and he and his wife used that break to travel. But by the beginning of 2020, Bian decided he wanted to start a food company since he liked to cook.

He was close to signing a commercial kitchen lease to make almond flour cookies when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many food businesses. To stay busy, Peter and his wife decided to make meal kits to drop off to friends for fun.

Entrepreneurial spirit

While it crossed Bian's mind to try to make dumplings a business, it always seemed like too much work.

"There's a reason why it's something that you eat when there is a huge family gathering: because everyone can chip in," he said.

It wasn't until Chinese New Year in 2021 that Bian and Cao decided to give dumpling-making a serious go by learning from his mother.

Bian told his wife, "I've never been able to nail down a recipe, so let's sit down with [mom], make dumplings from scratch from the beginning and weigh all of her different ingredients out."

Zhang said she has never had a recipe, let alone specific measurements.

Her husband said she uses "memory and scale. Some this. Some that." She didn't realize her son's interest was for anything more than internal documentation.

"She had no idea what we were doing. ... So basically we just stole the recipes," Bian joked.

After they went home, Bian and Cao tested making classic pork and Napa cabbage dumplings, advertising them on Bian's Instagram as a dozen frozen dumplings in a bag with dipping sauce.

Forty people responded in the first 10 minutes before Bian closed sales, which meant Bian was on the hook to make 500 dumplings in a matter of days.

The first few weekends, Bian made dumplings by hand day and night with his customers picking them up from the couple's Minneapolis condo garage.

"It was definitely a huge learning process," Bian said.

Bian soon found he was selling the dumplings illegally, since he was unlicensed and working with meat. After Bian licensed the business, he partnered with dumpling fan and popular local chef Doug Flicker (Piccolo and Esker Grove) to lease kitchen space at his Bull's Horn restaurant.

"I think that if you provide something authentic to what you love ... people will find you," Flicker said of Saturday Dumpling Co.'s success.

A new recipe

By the end of the year, the dumpling business needed more space and moved into the shared kitchen at Dots Gray Kitchen. Other local chefs have collaborated with the company including Sameh Wadi (World Street Kitchen), Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma and Brasa Premium Rotisserie) and Christina Nguyen (Hai Hai and Hola Arepa) to create limited-edition dumplings.

Bian has also experimented with wontons and hot food like Chinese sausage sliders, a culinary innovation Cao said helps make the Twin Cities a "foodie destination."

About a year ago, Cao, 37, started working full time in the business, helping to make dumplings and handle the company's branding and social media, including a recent name change from Saturday Dumpling Club to Saturday Dumpling Co. Cao, who is also Chinese, said the dumpling business is something her parents can relate to and understand, unlike her previous marketing jobs.

"It's very special in their minds to be like, 'Now you can enjoy these more than a few times a year,'" she said.

Bian, Cao and a few part-time workers make thousands of dumplings by hand each week, often selling out. For Mother's Day weekend, they offered pork, shrimp and chive dumplings, Zhang's favorite.

This spring, Saturday Dumpling Co. began catering. In the future, Bian and Cao want to open a physical restaurant, since customers say Saturday-only pickups aren't enough.

The business has not only been financially successful, it has also fostered a new connection between Bian and his parents.

"Not only did he inherit this Chinese culture of making dumplings, but he really expanded this and tried to merge it into the local culture," Yanjie Bian said of his son.

They weren't always on the same page, though. Zhang didn't initially believe dumplings could be a moneymaker or sell for around $20 a bag. But now, Zhang makes appearances in the kitchen to ensure the dumplings — and her kids — are living up to the family name.

"Why are you cutting it this way?" she'll say. Or, "That's not how I would do it." Typical Mom fussing. But underneath that is awe at her son's hard work to create a business she couldn't have conceived.

"I'm really, really proud of him."