Dough Zone Dumpling House first opened in a strip mall in Bellevue, Washington, in 2014. Since then, the restaurant has grown into a chain of five throughout Greater Seattle, and it’s safe to say that the city has fallen in love. Hinged on the deliciousness of typical Chinese comfort foods like jian bao, xiao long bao, and noodles, Dough Zone has built a cult following in four short years. Still, owners Jason and Nancy Zhai are gunning for much more.
“In this market, the most successful chain is Panda Express,” says Jason Zhai. “You could say that [business model] is my goal. Today, well-traveled Americans know that Chinese food is more than sweet and sour chicken, fried rice, and noodles. We hope to tap into this new understanding of Chinese food with a big-name chain.”
The Zhais effectively want to bring their exciting, affordable Chinese fare to the same level of fame as the country’s most beloved Chinese fast-food brand, which has 2000 international outposts. So far they have made some baby steps in this direction.
Straightforward and decisive, Zhai has long had an entrepreneurial streak. He says that massive queues at his very first Dough Zone, along with rave reviews from the media ever since, gave him the confidence boost to set his sights even higher than Seattle success.
Zhai’s start-up mentally dates all the way back to 1996, when he emigrated from Tianjin in Northern China to the United States at the age of 24. He graduated from UC Berkeley’s civil engineering program. Then, months later, he started a Tukwila, Washington, construction company, selling materials for cabinets and countertops. In his own words, he was just trying to survive.
The financial crisis of 2008 eventually forced him to close his construction business. Then, his friends in the Chinese community encouraged him to chase the opportunity he saw for opening a restaurant serving a new take on Chinese food in the Seattle area.
So began Jason’s foray into restaurant ownership. He opened Spiced, a Bellevue strip-mall restaurant that continues to serve Chinese cuisine to this day. He later sold his second business, Twilight 7. And though he also closed his short-lived Ramen Bushido in spring, he says the experimenting his team did there, with noodles made on-site, allowed him to up Dough Zone’s noodle game.
So why did Dough Zone meet such massive success out of the gate? Soon after it opened in Bellevue, a glut of East Asian clientele helped the fledgling restaurant amass a loyal following almost overnight. WeChat and Facebook helped spread the word in the community. And, of course, the food has been exceedingly delicious since the beginning — arguably the best dumplings in the city backed by strong supporting actors, like fresh noodles with green onion soy sauce.
In those early days, the menu featured a much wider variety of traditional crowd-pleasers appealing to first- and second-generation Chinese customers. Nancy Zhai expanded on her home-cooking repertoire, as well as the dumpling-making prowess of her mother-in-law, to crank out the likes of lamb meat soup, pig feet with noodles, and durian-banana flatbread. Crowds swarmed. Critics followed.
As its popularity rose, the restaurant quickly grew into a budding chain with four locations on the Eastside of Seattle. Last year, the highly anticipated fifth outpost, in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, came to fruition.
And as the company expanded to five restaurants in three-and-a-half years, a marked shift occurred: In 2014, Jason cut the menu nearly in half. He felt that Dough Zone’s audience had changed and grown in a way that it was time to scale, so he axed some of the more labor-intensive and niche dishes, such as moo shu pork and Xi’anese lamb soup, and moved most of the prep work to a central commissary kitchen close to the original location in Bellevue. Here, Dough Zone continues to control consistency and quality more closely, streamline work, and lower costs. In Zhai’s mind, these were necessary changes in order to prime his business for the growth he wants to achieve.
Nancy, along with some of Dough Zone’s original customer base, reminisce about the losses.
“I liked the moo shu pork,” explains Nancy Zhai. “Because I felt like you could get a balance of veggies with meat. But Jason totally cut it. When it first came out, some of the customers — mostly Chinese — were very excited about it. They still ask me, ‘When will you put that back?’”
Zhai is quick with his response. “I want to introduce the foods of my hometown, of course. But the main thing is that I’m doing business. I have partners and investors. These are the things I need to do.”
The immediate goal is clear: To reach 15 restaurants within the state of Washington in the next five years. He will adjust operations so that scaling can happen, but he’s preferred to keep those plans private. Any new procedures must first hold up to the team’s high standards of flavor and texture; then, and only then, will they be able to scale up and streamline production.
The origin of Panda Express wasn’t actually so different from that of Dough Zone. In 1973, on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena, Yangzhou, China-born Andrew Cherng opened a single restaurant, the Panda Inn, with the help of his father, Ming Tsai Cherng. Andrew’s wife, Peggy Cherng, joined as the restaurant’s operations manager in 1982. The goal, back in those early days, was to open 100 restaurants.
At the first Panda Express, the Cherngs put out consistent, high-quality food. With quality established, they used technological savvy, real estate prowess, and connections to spur explosive growth.
Cherng was friends with Terry and Dan Donahue, respectively UCLA’s head football coach and the developer for the Glendale Galleria Mall. Twelve years after Panda’s Inn’s opening, in 1985, Dan Donahue invited the Cherngs to open a fast-food restaurant in the mall food court. It was so successful that the chain grew from five restaurants to nine in a single year. Peggy Cherng’s engineering background was a huge support in scaling success and fielding customer feedback. Today, Panda Express continues to innovate and respond to customers’ changing tastes.
Dough Zone’s newest outpost lives in a new mixed-use building in the Chinatown-International District. Typically no host or hostess stands at the door. Instead, an unmanned kiosk with a tablet allows for mobile queueing. Customers enter their names and party sizes into the system, which later notifies them when their tables are ready.
The new location’s menu is much smaller than that of the original, but Zhai will not mess with one dumpling he sees as core to his business: sheng jian bao — sometimes listed as “Q-bao” on the Dough Zone menu — which is a street food speciality of Shanghai. It’s made with pillowy yeasted dough, pan-fried for crispiness, with a soup-filled interior. It’s great Instagram fodder.
“[The latest] Dough Zone has been crazy busy, and we can see that most customers are young professionals. We’re going to capitalize on that,” says Jason Zhai.
He’s clearly in experiment mode. He says that he wants to start offering food to go. But he also notes that the address of each new location will play a major role in its structure.
“If we open in [the Amazon-dominated Seattle neighborhood of] South Lake Union, we might do a more fast-food type of store to experiment with small spaces. If we open in [the Seattle satellite of] Bothell, we might do full service.”
Zhai also says he’s looking at opening in Capitol Hill, Northgate, and the U District over the next five years, but doesn’t have much to share around the how of achieving Panda Express-level success. Still, he’s dead sure of one thing.
“Beef broccoli and General Tso’s chicken are pretty old-fashioned,” he says. “Now, xiao long bao, jian bao, Peking duck — that’s the next generation for sure.”