Richard Lee and Claire Guyer are taking a short break from selling Chinese dumplings, even though their customers are clamoring for more.
They’re not being bad businesspeople. They’ve just had a bit of bad luck, thanks to a wayward dumpling machine.
In February, Lee and Guyer started Little Brother Chinese Food, a small business that sells bags of frozen, hand-folded jiaozi, or dumplings, based on family recipes Lee learned from his grandmother and aunt.
Based out of Fork Food Lab in Portland, the couple made restaurant-quality dumplings filled with pork and napa cabbage, roasted mushrooms, and spicy beef and onions to celebrate the Year of the Ox. Their food proved to be much more popular than they expected, and they routinely made 3,000 dumplings a week.
“We would think, ‘OK, we finally folded enough to last us for a week,’ and then they would sell out in two days,” Guyer said. “The folding is definitely the longest time commitment when you’re making dumplings.”
They couldn’t keep up, but they didn’t feel ready to bring on more staff either. So they found a company in China that would make them a custom dumpling machine to fill and fold their dumplings. It would also allow them to make their own dough for wrappers.
“We took pictures of our dumplings and gave them specific weights and all the specifications, and they made a dumpling die (a manufacturing tool used to form materials into specific shapes) that’s suited for our dumplings,” Lee said. He asked the company to ship the dumpling machine to Portland, Maine.
Then the bill of lading arrived in an email. What happened next is familiar to many residents of our fair city: The company sent the machine to the wrong Portland.
“We saw that it was headed for Tacoma, Washington, and then Portland, Oregon.” Lee said. “We called them and they said, ‘It’s already in the water. We can’t do anything about it now.’”
Guyer, laughing, recalled the company’s suggestion: “Can’t you just go to Oregon and pick it up?”
The couple hired a Boston-based customs broker called Oceanair, which has an office in this Portland, to clear the shipment for them when it arrived in the U.S. Kelly L’Heureux, vice president of Portland operations for Oceanair, reassured them that this kind of mix-up happens all the time, mostly to mom-and-pop shops or small factories. The buyers ask for a product to be shipped to Portland, Maine, but sometimes don’t specify that it should first land in a Boston or New York port. (Lee says that, in his case, he specified Boston.)
Often clues to this kind of mistake can be found in the paperwork, L’Heureux said, by looking at what the customer paid for shipping, or the time it takes for the purchase to reach the U.S. China to Tacoma takes two weeks; China to Boston takes 30 to 45 days.
“This happens mostly with people who are either small companies or individuals who decide to buy something from the Far East, and they end up working with someone who either doesn’t ship a lot, or they could ship a lot but just don’t know their geography,” she said.
It has also been known to happen in other industries, and in the reverse. In November, a Texas family that wanted to fly to Portland, Maine, was sent to Portland, Oregon, by their travel agent instead. They had to spend the night in the airport in Oregon before a TSA agent helped them board another flight to bring them back east.
L’Heureux says she has moved “truckloads of goods” from the West Coast to the East Coast because of this confusion over the two Portlands. Several years ago, she said, a Lewiston store ordered a shipment of furniture that went right to Oregon.
“It ended up costing them $6,000 more than it would have cost them if they’d just shipped it to the right port in Boston or New York,” she said.
L’Heureux explained that the dumpling machine’s import security filing, or ISF – a required federal document that gives ports a heads-up that goods are coming into the country – had not been filed in China before sailing. The machine was scheduled to land in another foreign port before heading to the United States, and that gave L’Heureux the time she needed to file the ISF and make an important change: When workers offloaded the dumpling machine in Tacoma, it was transferred to a truck headed for Maine instead of Oregon. That intervention saved another two weeks of travel time on the machine’s long journey.
Ordered on March 5, the dumpling machine finally arrived in Portland on May 22, and the couple had it in hand a few days later. The shipping from Washington to Portland, Lee said, cost nearly half as much as the machine itself, though he wouldn’t say how much that was.
Now, Lee and Guyer are learning to use the dumpling machine, which has turned out to be nearly as time-consuming as having it shipped here. The machine is about the size of a washer-dryer and covered in gadgets, including a conveyor belt that helps feed the dumpling dough through another belt where the finished dumplings end up, and an arm for feeding the filling into the dough.
As Lee and Guyer explained in a recent newsletter to customers who were wondering why they weren’t getting their dumpling fix: “If we’re being honest, we thought the process would be like turning on a dishwasher but it’s actually more like playing an accordion. Homemade dough is carefully guided into rollers that must be finely tuned with unmarked knobs. Jiaozi filling is fed into the dough from a different mechanism on the same machine, which must be operated simultaneously.”
A kitchen manager at Fork Food Lab has nicknamed the dumpling maker “a Dr. Seuss machine,” Guyer said.
“It really takes me back to playing Mouse Trap as a kid,” Lee added.
Once they learn the ins and outs and perfect their dumpling-making process, they’ll start producing again – you can watch their progress on Instagram @littlebrotherchinesefood – and plan to hold collaborative pop-up events and expand to wholesale. Lee said they’re also going to introduce “something new that’s a surprise.”
Maybe not as much of a surprise as a dumpling machine getting lost in the mail.