The hardest thing about running a wildly popular dumpling business isn't the kneading of the dough, which Peter Bian insists on doing by hand against the advice of his chef friends.
It's not the wrapping each week of 4,000 neat little packets of pork and ginger or brisket and Szechuan peppercorn, which hold their shape in the frying pan and burst with the first flavor-walloping bite.
Despite the manual labor, Bian's wrists are doing just fine.
No, the hardest part about being the chef and owner of Saturday Dumpling Club — an Instagram-based food business that has amassed a ravenous fanbase in only a few months — is the direct messages.
As soon as Bian started selling his dumplings earlier this year by posting mouthwatering photos of them on Instagram, his DMs were flooded with orders. And, inevitably, with disappointment, when Bian had to break the news: all sold out.
By the third week, he was responding to 250 people to tell them all of his dumplings had been snatched up in 4 or 5 minutes. "It was very, very intense," he said.
Now, six months in, Bian is using a website to automate ordering. But Instagram is still his home base, where he informs his followers of the week's flavors and how to scoop them up. The dumplings still fly off the virtual shelf.
Follow one account like Saturday Dumpling Club and Instagram's algorithm may suggest others like it, revealing a visual, virtual marketplace of Twin Cities-based entrepreneurs who have weathered the pandemic by getting into the kitchen. They've turned to social media, particularly the photo-sharing app Instagram, to cultivate customer bases and to market their products directly to followers in a deliciously eye-catching way.
"It's the perfect marrying of free marketing and target audience," said Phyllis Welsh, a Roseville-based social media marketing strategist who is a repeat customer of some of these businesses.
Because there's often only one person cooking, flash sales can be extremely limited and demand is high. But for customers, figuring out how to buy the products can be part of the allure. It's a farmers market-meets-speakeasy for the digital age.
"There is no doubt that a sense of 'exclusivity' can make things more desirable," said Joseph P. Redden, professor of marketing analytics at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. And because of the pandemic, "it could be the case that online buzz matters more right now because that's how we are talking more to people these days."
A pandemic pivot
In just weeks, Bian turned a family recipe and pandemic hobby into a full-time job.
He was born in Tianjin, China, a seaside town about 200 miles from Beijing, where boiled dumplings with handmade dough, potstickers and steamed bao buns were staples of the dinner table. In his household, dumpling-making was a time-consuming marathon. "It's a huge labor of love," he said.
When the pandemic hit, Bian was between careers, and he had plenty of time to make dumplings. He froze them, and started doing socially distant drop-offs for friends. The lucky recipients urged him to go into business and, in February 2021, he did, posting on Instagram that he had a few batches for sale.
"I had maybe 350 followers at the time, all friends, some from middle school in Hong Kong and a handful of people in Minneapolis," he said. But among those followers were some local chefs. The buzz spread fast.
One of those chefs, Doug Flicker, was an early customer-turned-supporter. Bian is now cooking out of Flicker's commissary kitchen at the Bull's Horn in Minneapolis. (Minnesota's Cottage Foods Law allows jarred and baked goods to be made from home, but frozen foods, meat and dairy need to be prepared in a professional kitchen.)
Flicker began ordering from Instagram-based foodmakers at the height of the pandemic, when "we were stuck at home and our palate profile was pretty dead. So when things like the dumpling club came up, the ability to get food that wasn't from the same wheelhouse was really nice," he said. "Whether or not it turned into a business, it certainly gave people something to do to express themselves. I think people like Peter are wildly surprised at the outcome and about finding the ability to move forward."
Surprised — and stunned — by the rapid success, Bian said. "It's one of those rocket ships that you just kind of hang on and hope you don't fall off."
Nearly instant success
Two friends with a podcast and a passion for grilling also were shocked at how quickly their burger endeavor, Private Sector Provisions, has grown. Last fall, Brett Splinter and Joshua Clark started giving out burgers to friends in the hospitality industry who had been pummeled by the pandemic. An Instagram-fueled frenzy spread fast, and the friends' occasional pop-ups at breweries have been constant sell-outs.
They still don't charge, instead asking customers to donate to a changing charity. Some guests will give up to $50 on behalf of this cult smashburger.
"I don't have a website. I don't have a menu. It's been completely organic," Splinter said. "And it's easy to post. Like, any dope with an iPhone can take a picture."
Still, the photos have to be tantalizing.
"People love pictures of pasta. I love pictures of pasta," said Rachael McLeod, who runs Cornelius Pasta on Instagram.
A chef for more than 15 years, McLeod studied Instagram videos from Italian chefs to learn how to make unusual shapes. The Otsego, Minn., native started posting stunning photos of her practice pastas, and her following grew.
When she decided to launch a weekly pasta home-delivery business marketed entirely on Instagram, "it was an easy transition," she said. "Posting pictures of pasta, saying, 'Hey, do you want to buy this?' It kind of sells itself. It's beautiful."
She compares the platform to an olden-days Main Street, where shoppers get their bread from a baker, their cheese from a monger and so on, rather than buying all their ingredients in one supermarket.
"It's like craftsman, almost," McCleod said. "People have specialties and get really good at their niche, so you get a really high-quality product. And people will pay for something that they can't get somewhere else."
They will also go to what some might consider extreme lengths to get ahold of limited-edition foods.
Welsh, the social media strategist, has a method for snagging a pint of ice cream from A to Z Creamery, an Instagram business with outlandish flavors and an ordering schedule that is notoriously hard to pin down.
"It became almost a game," she said. "Basically I would sit with my computer up during the timeframe, and the minute I saw the email come through, I would go to the website and try to get a pint."
The maker of those pints is Zach Vraa, a local influencer who used his Instagram know-how to sell some of the hottest ice cream in town.
Vraa's sales job scaled back in March 2020, and with his extra time, he started experimenting with an ice cream machine his mother had sent him for his birthday. He posted photos of his creations to his personal Instagram page, offering up some of the extras. His inbox was crushed by requests.
He got a food license and took a spot in a commercial kitchen. Now he's making up to 400 pints a week in flavors like corn on the cob with cotija cheese, and cake batter with pink cake chunks and blue cream cheese frosting. But the sale times, announced on Instagram, are unpredictable. Vraa thinks the randomness helps a wider swath of customers access his in-demand ice cream.
Marty's Deli requires eagle eyes on Instagram to find out when and where chef Martha Polacek's next sandwich pop-up will take place. "People can't just expect to show up somewhere and have a sandwich," she said. "It's fun for people to keep an eye on it and watch where we'll be."
Followers of Kady Lone's Pudge Cookie are getting something extra: her Instagram-famous cat, Pudge. This feline celebrity has 645,000 followers, and Lone has leveraged her social media acuity to sell huge homemade cookies loaded with chocolate bars, cereal and sea salt. It started as a hobby and "the demand grew to be more than I could handle," she said.
She's operating as a cottage business, baking from home and conducting monthly sales through DMs. She's hoping to turn Pudge Cookie's popularity into a career by opening a storefront.
While Vraa is making enough on his pints to keep his ice cream business going, he has no plans to take A to Z brick and mortar. For now it is going to stay on Instagram, an unexpected marketplace filled with hidden secrets and dream-making endeavors. He's just happy to be a part of it.
"I bet a lot of people out there, who were stuck in typical corporate jobs at a desk, are taking on what they truly love to do," he said. "Starting these businesses, people are chasing their dreams."
Get on board
Here are the Twin Cities' hottest underground foods — and how to get them:
Inventive ice cream from A to Z Creamery
Follow on Instagram: @atozcreamery
How to get it: Subscribe to Zach Vraa's e-mail list (found at atozcreamery.com), then check Instagram stories for an announcement about the ordering window for the new batch. Sometime during that window, subscribers will get an e-mail with a link to buy (or, occasionally, to sign up for a lottery). Times for pickup, which is in St. Louis Park, also vary.
Fastest sell-out time: 60 seconds.
Artisanal fresh pasta and sauce from Cornelius Pasta
Follow on Instagram: @corneliuspasta
How to get it: Rachael McLeod posts a teaser to her weekly menu on Wednesdays. Send a direct message to see the full menu and place an order — the sooner the better. Pay via Venmo; a website is in the works. Sunday delivery to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Pickup locations coming soon.
Fastest sell-out time: 2 minutes.
House-made focaccia sandwiches from Marty's Deli
Follow on Instagram: @martysdeli
How to get it: Martha Polacek announces pop-up locations and times on Instagram in advance, with a standing date on Wednesdays at Bar Brava (1914 N. Washington Av., Mpls.). Pre-order by 5 p.m. the day before at martysdelimn.com. Some sandwiches are held for walk-ins, and delivery to select ZIP codes may be available.
Fastest sell-out time: 30 minutes.
Cult smashburgers from Private Sector Provisions
Follow on Instagram: @privatesectormedia
How to get it: Brett Splinter and Joshua Clark post dates for their occasional burger giveaways about a week in advance, with a follow-up post a few days ahead of time about where and when to e-mail your order. Pick up is at various breweries; no walk-up orders.
Fastest sell-out time: 3 minutes.
Loaded, whimsical cookies from Pudge Cookie
Follow on Instagram: @pudgecookie
How to get it: Check Kady Lone's Instagram stories on the first of the month at 10 a.m. for the menu, then order by direct message and pay via Venmo. Pick up the following weekend at an Uptown address. Occasional pop-ups, also announced on Instagram, sell out fast.
Fastest sell-out time: 30 minutes.
Handmade dumplings from Saturday Dumpling Club
Follow on Instagram: @saturdaydumplingclub
How to get it: Peter Bian posts his weekly menu on Tuesdays. Ordering opens Wednesdays at 10 a.m. — set an alarm — at saturdaydumplingclub.com. Occasional pop-ups are also announced on Instagram. Pick up Saturdays at Bull's Horn, 4563 34th Av. S., Mpls.
Fastest sell-out time: 5 minutes.