Sometimes the best products aren’t born out of a plan for culinary dominance, but an entrepreneur’s simple desire to be able to buy a product that just doesn’t seem to be available in the existing market.
Originally from Shanghai, Edmontonian Ray Ma was disappointed with the selection of packaged dumplings in her local grocery stores. None of them were particularly tasty, and most were full of less-than-ideal ingredients. Ma was making her own dumplings at home, filled with interesting combinations of flavours and ingredients and thought that other dumpling lovers might want to give them a try.
In 2014 Ma was working as a lawyer and her partner Chris Lerohl had a job in tech, but they knew they wanted to see how well Ma’s dumplings would sell. Ma quit her job to shift to dumplings full time, and the couple tested the waters by selling bags of dumplings at a farmers’ market. They quickly realized that the gap in the market that Ma felt with her dumpling cravings was shared by others in Edmonton.
“When we started we didn’t even know what a commercial kitchen was,” Lerohl says. “We had to figure out a lot of things really quickly.”
The farmers’ market was a success, and before long Ma and Lerohl were also doing pop-up events in Edmonton. They named their venture Honest Dumplings after their commitment to transparency and quality when it comes to their ingredients — even the dumplings’ brightly coloured wrappers are dyed with natural vegetable juices. Both the markets and the pop-ups were a hit and before long, Lerohl and Ma set their sights on something bigger; they attended a food show in California and became convinced that there was a place for their dumplings in mainstream grocery stores.
“We got really inspired and knew that that was where we wanted to take our product,” Lerohl says. “The grocery game is really changing and we knew that we could bring a disruption to that category, and bring a different kind of customer experience to that market. And that’s when we really pivoted into being a grocery food company.”
Lerohl and Ma got to working not only on developing relationships with stores, but also on new packaging and marketing to appeal to shoppers rushing through grocery store aisles. Without the opportunity to have that one-on-one interaction with their customers that they had in the farmers’ market, after some trial and error the pair worked with an agency to come up with a look that would convey Honest Dumpling’s personality from within a freezer case. What they came up with were whimsical illustrations and lettering — with no depictions of the actual dumplings. Part of being “honest” meant not overselling the dumplings inside the bags with stylized photos; Ma and Lerohl wanted their food to speak for itself.
But packaging is just packaging. What really sets Honest Dumplings apart is the flavour and quality of the dumplings. While the company’s ingredient standards are a game-changer on their own, the innovative fillings are what keep customers coming back. Honest Dumpling’s core flavours include traditional pork with shrimp and edamame, maple pork belly with quinoa and bok choi, ginger beef, kung pao tofu, and butter chicken. There are always limited edition flavours that push the boundaries even further.
For Chinese New Year, the company is bringing back its Chinese Takeout Pack with ginger beef, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso’s chicken dumplings. They may not be traditional, but the approach is similar to what Ma and Lerohl have found in modern restaurants in China.
“In China there are so many delicious dumplings,” Ma says. “All with such high quality and good flavours.”
With Honest Dumplings now in both specialty health food stores and major grocery stores throughout Alberta (and also available for order online or through Spud), Ma and Lerohl have longer term plans to expand nationally and even come up with other Chinese-inspired products to add to their line. For now though, they’re also focused on spreading their food philosophy through their new Uproot Food Collective. Joining with other farmers’ market favourites South Island Pie Co. and Natural Kitchen Delights, the service offers delivery of a growing number of local products to Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and a few other Alberta communities.
Knowing how hard it is to turn a smaller scale food brand into a grocery store staple, they wanted to leverage the knowledge that they’ve built up with Honest Dumplings to help other local businesses. It’s been especially important during the pandemic, where eat-at-home businesses have actually had an opportunity to grow. Coming back full circle, it’s all about bringing those food products that people yearn for to tables across Alberta and beyond.
“We try to do things honestly in life and give people what we would want,” Lerohl says. “We feel very lucky that we’ve been able to expand and help support other businesses as well.”
For a full list of products and retail locations or to order dumplings or other Uproot brands, visit honestdumplings.com.