If there is a theme running through Kenny Lao’s life, it’s probably dumplings. When Lao was a student at Brown, he used to host monthly dumpling parties. About a dozen of his friends, most of them teammates on the sailing team, came over and wrapped bits of raw dough around a variety of fillings. “We’d sit around sipping cheap wine from a box, and I’d teach them how to make dumplings,” Lao recalls. The recipes all came from his mother, who was born in China.
During his first year out of school, Lao worked at a big bank in Boston, but for a change of pace he’d cook up some dumplings during the week, freeze them, and then on weekends haul them up to New Hampshire, where he’d sell them at a farmer’s market. It wasn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. “I’d make just enough to cover my costs,” he says.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when Lao was opening restaurants for a Manhattan-based restaurant group, that he came up with the idea of starting a dumpling restaurant in New York City. Lao’s Rickshaw Dumpling Bar opened in 2005 in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, serving six varieties of dumplings, from “classic pork and Chinese chive” dumplings to Shanghai chocolate-soup dumplings (they’re filled with melted callebaut chocolate and butter). The restaurant offers super-quick service and upscale food, a combination that Lao says makes his dumplings as convenient as fast food, but as delicious as any of his gourmet competitors.
It also didn’t hurt Lao that his first year in business became the basis for an MTV documentary. “I still get people in the restaurant who say, ‘We saw you on MTV,’ ” he says. Of course, having a camera crew there to capture your every faux pas as you struggle to start a business can be a bit unnerving. “I lost all my friends,” Lao says. “They said, ‘There’s was no way we want to be on camera.’ ”
Lao, whom Inc. magazine named one of the country’s “coolest young” entrepreneurs, is now in the middle of raising $3 million in capital to open six new stores, two of them in Manhattan and the rest in Washington, D.C. He hopes to expand to cities all along the Northeast corridor. “We’re serving up really authentic, tasty dumplings, but they still appeal to the general palette,” Lao says. “We make dumplings very accessible.”