I have a friend who has eaten at seemingly every Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, enlightening me every day on his newest food cravings. More often than not, they involved Din Tai Fung.
“Only three more days before I get to go to Din Tai Fung!!” he would exclaim excitedly.
I can’t blame him for being so excited. On any given day, there is a wait time to taste Din Tai Fung’s famous xiao long bao, steamed pork dumplings. They are the only Taiwanese food brand to receive a Michelin star. It’s tough for us to remember a time where Din Tia Fung wasn’t just about the most famous Chinese restaurant around.
Like with most restaurants, however, Din Tai Fung had modest beginnings. Din Tai Fung’s story actually began as a cooking oil company. Originally a deliveryman, Binyi Yang now found himself in charge of Heng Tai Fung, a cooking oil company. Struggling with the recent losses, the store was forced to shut down, and unemployed, Binyi decided to found his own oil company: Din Tai Fung. But after tinned oil went on sale, sales at Din Tai Fung plummeted, and taking the advice of a friend, Binyi and his wife turned half of their store to making and selling steamed dumplings. Thanks to the power of word-of-mouth, this was the company that would then become the Din Tai Fung we know today.
How did they do it? How did Din Tai Fung manage to stand out from all the other restaurants out there? How did they go from a small family business to an internationally recognized one? How did they turn the small xiao long bao into an integral part of Taiwan’s identity?
Hint: It’s not advertising.
Without hesitation, Food and Beverage Supervisor of the Santa Anita Westfield mall Caspar Hsiung attributes Din Tai Fung’s success to two main things: detail and customer service.
Their dishes are simple, and their entire menu is built upon variations of a handful of main dishes, but in terms of detail, there is nothing that Din Tai Fung overlooks. From the glass window around an extension of the kitchen, we see employees in white aprons, face masks, and hair nets kneading the dough and weighing each piece. Later, when the xiao long baos come out, they will all have the same 18 folds, the same delicate skin, and just the right thickness and temperature of the soup.
“I think the main experience that inspired the attention to detail came after we branched out to Japan in 1996,” Hsiung says. “In Japan, they put a heavy emphasis on precision, replacing ‘a pinch of this’ or ‘a spoon of that’ with numbers.”
Even now, they strive to maintain their level of precision and dedication to their customers, abiding strictly to their philosophies quality is the lifeblood of the business and branding means responsibility. Their customers are their most valuable critics, and taking in their comments, Din Tai Fung is always looking for ways to improve.
Hsiung says, “We are always making some minor changes to our menu, ingredients, and recipes, even if the customers do not always notice it. We are always willing to spend extra money on better ingredients, because it’s not really always about the profit. It’s about the quality.”
From location to location, Din Tai Fung also adjusts its menu accordingly. For example, instead of serving their famed pork xiao long bao dumplings in Dubai, they created chicken dumplings to accommodate the dietary needs of Dubai’s citizens. Understanding the perils of expanding too quickly, they set up a central kitchens for every couple of stores in an area where 70% of the ingredients are pre-prepared and assembled to maintain the level that took years to achieve.
Beyond the xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung has a standard set of procedures for every dish, specifying details down to the temperature in which the ingredients are prepared. The employees walk with an elegance and grace, and greet the customers with genuine warmth and concern. They artfully craft over ten million xiao long bao every year, but manage to maintain the precision in the efficiency. In Chinese, they call these three values wen du, tai du, shu du: temperature, attitude, and speed. And they make sure to meet every one of them.
Aside from the difficulties of maintaining their level of precision, finding the proper employees also proves to be challenging. While most restaurants typically require roughly 15-25 employees, Din Tai Fung needs about 100. Even though a lot of people apply, the challenge lies in finding employees that will stick around. While the pay compensation is a compelling incentive, and Din Tai Fung has a reputation for treating their employees like family, the training itself takes roughly six months to a year. Most employees start off as “runners” so they get to see the food come out, learn the ingredients and get a taste of the quality that is to be maintained before being able to become a server. As servers, employees need to learn the greetings, acquire “food knowledge,” company history and philosophy.
But that’s not all. “When we look for employees, one of the main things we look for is a smile,” Hsiung adds. “Everything else can be trained, but smiling and making customers feel welcome can’t.”
And sure enough, as soon as customers approach the door, an employee is smiling warmly, already making sure your meal is one you will not easily forget. Din Tai Fung’s recipe to success lies not only in the soy sauce, or the flour, or the meat, but also in the dedication and willingness to put customers above the temptation of a quick profit.
Through the glass window of their kitchen that allows customers an interactive experience, it is clear they are not worried about onlookers. They understand that the true skill lies in a long-lasting determination to achieve near-perfection in all aspects, the ability to challenge employees to raise their standards, and the desire to prioritize the customer’s experience above all else—skills that take a lot of training in themselves to possess.