By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
What many don’t know about Din Tai Fung’s humble beginnings is of its earliest days as a store selling cooking oil. It was a struggling business that transitioned in 1972, from selling oil to serving steamed soup dumplings out of a small storefront on Taipei’s XinYi Road. Its flagship store grew to include chains across Asia.
Din Tai Fung’s claim to fame is its juicy soup dumplings, the “xiao long bao.” Among its other menu offerings are handmade noodles and small appetizers that are favorites at its Taipei locations. Its first locations in North America are two branches located within walking distance of one another in Arcadia, Calif., a city outside of Los Angeles known for its high Asian population. When it came to additional U.S. locations, the surprising pick of Bellevue, Wash. had many asking questions.
“Why not one in New York or San Francisco, and how does Bellevue get one of all places?” people would ask David Wasielewski, managing partner of the Din Tai Fung locations in Bellevue and University Village.
Wasielewski was born and raised in Taiwan. He arrived in Seattle with his family when he was 11 years old. After receiving an MBA from Seattle University, Wasielewski’s position as a marketing manager with Intel allowed him many trips to Asia, where he sought out Din Tai Fung restaurants in the countries he would visit.
About seven years ago, Wasielewski was able to meet the current owners of Din Tai Fung through mutual friends.
“It started out as, ‘I’m a huge fan of your work,’ and the conversation led to, ‘Hey wait a minute, maybe we can do something here.’ At the time, I was living in the Bay Area working at Intel, but I knew that if I had the opportunity to open one, I would come back to Seattle, because I’m from Seattle,” said Wasielewski.
“I picked Bellevue at the time because of what Bellevue has become in the last five to 10 years with all the good work that Kemper [Freeman] and his company have done for downtown Bellevue. I felt that was the right place for our store.”
According to a news release from the City of Bellevue in 2012, Bellevue has in the last decade seen a growing immigrant community with many contributing to a booming tech industry, a trend that lends to higher foot traffic, disposable incomes, and desire for high quality service and food, which Wasielewski attributes to the potential for a successful store. The news release also speculated that the growing number of Bellevue’s diverse, high-powered workforce will continue to attract international businesses, and among them, stands Din Tai Fung.
“Taiwan as a nation really doesn’t have too many international brands. When you think about Korea and Japan, you have Samsung and Sony, but Taiwan historically has been a manufacturing type of place. It’s very rare that there is a brand that is well known internationally, certainly in Asia,” said Wasielewski.
In 2010, Wasielewski and his team opened Din Tai Fung in Bellevue Square to lines up to three-hours long and crowds as diverse as the city itself. Despite its built-in fan base ready to stand in line upon opening, Wasielewski opted for a different approach when opening the Bellevue branch, translating the brand in order to reach out to the masses.
“Looking at Bellevue, the model was to pick a very high-end mall with heavy foot traffic, and design the store with an above-average [aesthetic] in terms of how fancy it is, better than your typical Chinese restaurant, and really trying to mainstream it so that we target more than just the Chinese or Asian [population], but anybody and everybody,” said Wasielewski.
The cushy, polished Lincoln Square became the location for Bellevue’s Din Tai Fung, a branch vastly more similar to the look and feel of upscale Lincoln Square than the comparatively rustic storefronts of Taipei and even Arcadia. Under Wasielewki’s management, Bellevue’s location took an alternative approach from the franchise’s North American brethren, complete with a sleek interior, luxury mall location, and a bar with customized cocktails. He largely credits the franchise owners for having the foresight to allow for modern interpretation.
“The credit goes to the Din Tai Fung owners, who are open minded and smart about the importance of being local, whatever ‘local means,’ whether its local products or ingredients or just being local and going with the local market. If every restaurant in downtown Bellevue has a bar and you’re the only one that doesn’t, it doesn’t fit,” explained Wasielewski.
While the changes may have been jarring to those familiar with the Din Tai Fung brand, the Bellevue store achieved instant success. Just three years after Din Tai Fung Bellevue opened its doors, Wasielewski and his team opened a new Din Tai Fung in Seattle’s University Village, taking a page from the model set by its sister store.
“I really believe that if we have the opportunity to showcase what we have with people who don’t know about Din Tai Fung, predominantly non-Asians, then we’ll do really well. We just need the opportunity. The opportunity I felt would come if you built and design your restaurant and put it in a mainstream area. That’s why we picked Bellevue Square and because of the success we have had, it was very easy to say, let’s do this at University Village, which has the same type of environment, a high-end shopping center with a lot of foot traffic,” said Wasielewski.
The precedence set by Din Tai Fung’s Bellevue model complete with a high-end shopping center location, modern design, and bar program has lent itself to the success of the University Village and has more recently led to expansions in Los Angeles, including the branch at Glendale’s Americana Mall and a forthcoming store at South Coast Plaza scheduled to open this month. While Wasielewski reserved speculation about future locations for the owners, the success from the Din Tai Fung model he helped establish will likely lead to more similar models in other parts of the country.
“The fact that I’m able to be a part of it, and to be a part of bringing that brand to the U.S., that’s probably one of the things I’m most proud of as a Taiwanese American,” said Wasielewski. “I can’t claim to be the first in the U.S., but we are the first in this particular model that we’re doing and I think people have been very happy that we’re here. That makes me proud, and it makes me proud to be able to bring my culture here and introduce it to the people here.” (end)
Wasielewski will be a panelist at “Top Restaurants’ Secret of Success” luncheon hosted by the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 3, at the New Hong Kong Restaurant.
For more information about Din Tai Fung, visit dintaifungusa.com.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.