Until recently, Bing Bing Dim Sum’s Instagram inbox was full of complaints and demands. The people wanted soup dumplings, and they wanted them delivered.
The popular Philadelphia Chinese restaurant’s signature menu item—savory ground pork and spices in a concentrated broth barely contained by a delicate, house-made wrapper—is among the most ordered at the five-year-old restaurant.
Before the pandemic, dumpling diehards got these bundles of broth the only place they were served: the Bing Bing dining room. But COVID has meant a major shift to takeout, and chef Ben Puchowitz refuses to offer soup dumplings to-go. They just don’t travel well, he says, and even in the middle of a pandemic, no concessions will be made when it comes to quality on his watch.
It’s a problem that the kitchen staff has been trying to solve since May, when the restaurant reopened after the initial COVID shutdown this spring. Independent of frequently changing local regulations, Darragh and Puchowitz never reopened the dining rooms in their three restaurants, sticking to takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining.
So it was important to find a way to make the most beloved dishes, like those dumplings, more available. The people had spoken.
From steamer to freezer
Enter the freezer. Despite its stodgy, ’50s-era reputation, frozen food is not what it used to be. For years now, grocery store freezer sections have offered more appetizing choices than the old-school TV dinner, and restaurants have been making their most freezer-friendly specialities, like French pastries and Neapolitan pizzas, available to those who want to stock up for a while.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend as restaurants look for new takeout and delivery options for getting their best-loved dishes to diners in a different way. New York City food market favorite Balkan Bites now sells its burek frozen, as does Manhattan Italian restaurant I Trulli with pasta kits that come with frozen sauce and pasta. For Bing Bing Dim Sum in Philadelphia, the deep freeze offered an ideal solution to their soup dumpling problem.
“We spent a lot of time freezing them and then working on foolproof cooking instructions. If the heat is too high, the dumplings pop. If you steam them too long, the dumplings pop,” says Darragh, whose kids were happy to help taste test as many as required.
Technology was another obstacle. Bing Bing updated its systems to set up an online store, which “made it easy,” says Darragh. The frozen soup dumplings made their debut on the menu in early December, and they now sell out every day.
Feedback on the new format of the dish has been favorable; diners love getting takeout for one night and then having those soup dumplings stashed away in the freezer for a rainy day. Plus, the $9 item has boosted check averages, according to Darragh, who estimates around 70 percent of those who order them are tacking the dumplings on to a full dinner order. In many cases, they are adding on two or more orders of the dumplings.
In the coming weeks, Darragh and Puchowitz plan to add other frozen options. “Our cheesesteak bao bun is next,” says Darragh. In the restaurant, the bun is steamed, chilled, and then deep fried before serving. “But I like them best fresh out of the steamer. It’s chewy, cheesy deliciousness,” he says.
The cheesesteak bao buns will be frozen at that stage (right after steaming) so diners can enjoy them as Darragh does after a couple minutes in the microwave. “We also give instructions for baking them in the oven,” he says.
A good idea grows
On the other side of Philadelphia, in Fishtown, one of Darragh and Puchowitz’s other restaurants, Cheu, is also getting into the frozen food game. Cheu specializes in Asian-inspired noodle soups, and soon they’ll be offering their broths (brisket flavored, miso, and coconut) frozen as well, along with the renowned ramen brand Sun Noodles served with them.
“It’s kind of like a create-your-own ramen kit, you can add all the toppings and veggies you like,” he says. Darragh expects these frozen soup kits will be just as well-received as the dumplings.
These fresh, frosty ideas help business at a time when every incoming dollar counts. And Bing Bing Dim Sum is far from an outlier here. Across the country, restaurants are experimenting with new approaches to serving diners and earning money. Today, restaurateurs are creating next-level meal kits, devising off-premises dining experiences, and reimagining takeout. They’ve made batch cocktails and to-go tasting menus available with a few clicks. These inventive strategies have proven key to survival, but they’re hardly making up for the revenue usually brought in during a busy holiday season.
“We’re either losing money or breaking even. It’s really all about the weather,” he says.
In Philadelphia, December evenings might have temperatures in the 50s or in the 20s depending on the day. All three of Darragh and Puchowitz’s restaurants are outfitted with heat lamps to keep their patio and sidewalk diners comfy. “January and February will be the hardest times. If we can get to consistent outdoor dining in March, we’ll be fine. There’s a way to do it safely and we’ve been pretty aggressive,” says Darragh.
The restaurant group has no plans for the usual holiday events or prix fixe dinners. “We might offer some special meals for take out. We’re still working it out,” he says. But one thing is certain: They plan to continue serving their customers the same, safety-first way they have throughout the pandemic.
And the new freezer-section of their menus may offer an unexpected option for sharing holiday cheer. Frozen dumplings and soup kits can be shipped anywhere within Philadelphia, and they make a terrific contactless gift for a friend who is missing restaurants this season.
“Maybe we’ll get some ribbons,” says Darragh.