Read the Yelp reviews for Ten Tigers Parlour in Petworth and you’ll find a complaint that plays on repeat. To paraphrase: The cost of soup dumplings is too damn high at $8 a pair (initially $12). City Paper also issued a recent salvo by comparing the prices of ethnic eats in the city versus in the suburbs, suggesting price is the most important factor.
It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be. NPR ran a story this month that’s making ripples in the restaurant and food writing communities. “Cheap Eats, Cheap Labor: The Hidden Human Costs Of Those Lists” by restaurant owner Diep Tran looks at the unfairness and possible racism behind cheap eats lists.
“This view of people of color as sources of ‘cheap’ labor bleeds into our restaurant culture,” the author writes. “Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap. And so pulling together a “cheap eats” list rather than, say, an ‘affordable eats’ list both invokes that history and reinforces it by prioritizing price at the expense of labor.”
And later, “We need to rethink the very idea behind cheap eats lists. We need to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves about immigrant resourcefulness and tenacity also makes us willfully blind to the human cost that makes the $3 banh mi possible.”
In light of the article, we circled back with Ten Tigers Parlour to talk to its consulting chef Tim Ma. “What she hit on was fucking dead on,” he says of Tran’s piece. “We’re just used to it. We’re used to what was set a long time ago and the consumer doesn’t take the hit. The consumer can never take the hit. It’s always the business owner who has to take the hit, but you find ways to make it work.”
He says labor and the purveyors he uses play a big role in the price of his soup dumplings. “D.C. is on the forefront of increased minimum wage—it’s one of the top 10 cities in terms of minimum wage,” he says. “I don’t have a family of Chinese people working for me. I have culinary students and cooks and chefs that have aspirations to go and do something, so to keep them interested they can’t just make dumplings all the time.”
By way of comparison, he says that his uncle owned a Chinese restaurant in New York and ran things a lot differently. “He bought a house next to the restaurant that employees lived in, and part of the wage was the mortgage,” Ma says. “There was no such thing as overtime, no such thing as fair wages.”
Then there are the products Ma uses to make and stuff the dumplings. “The purveyors I have are in no way related to the purveyors that a Chinese restaurant has,” he says. Sustainability is important to Ma, so sourcing meat and produce from farms and other places he trusts is critical.
He theorizes that diners on a macro level care about the sustainability of food systems and fair wages for restaurant workers, but there’s some kind of disconnect on the micro level because everyday decisions still come down to price.
“Glen’s Garden Market is the perfect example,” Ma says. “She [Danielle Vogel] is using Lancaster co-ops, paying all her people $12, $13 an hour and she’s charging $10 a sandwich, and people are crying about it.” Prices have since gone up to about $13 per sandwich. “All of the sudden you can’t walk out of there without paying $20 for lunch,” Ma continues. “It’s a big hike—and it doesn’t matter to them … about the workers making the sandwich or the produce that they’re getting. They care about it, but they don’t want it to affect them immediately.”
Ma figured out that the best way to assuage criticism about perceived high prices is to compete on a different level. “We have to offer something that you don’t get at a traditional ethnic eatery,” he explains. For example, Ma knows he can’t sell banh mi for a 10 spot at Chase the Submarine in Vienna if one of his favorite restaurants—Banh Mi DC Sandwich in Falls Church—is selling them for less than $4 unless his sandwich is “next level.”
Instead of slicing jalapeños he makes jalapeño oil, for example, and he sources his pork belly from the revered Polyface Farm in Virginia. “You can’t find this form of banh mi in an ethnic eatery,” he says.
Ma is taking a similar approach at Ten Tigers Parlour. He says when the restaurant first opened he was serving beef and pork dumplings that you could find at other Chinese restaurants for much less. “That leaves me up to a one-on-one comparison,” he says. “I made a decision to change things up so that’s not possible.” Enter the truffle and royal trumpet mushroom soup dumpling he’s readying to debut to justify the price.
Ten Tigers Parlour, 3813 Georgia Ave. NW; (202) 506-2080; tentigersdc.com