A century ago, Bushwick teemed with German immigrants who crafted great tankards of lager beer. Today, erstwhile borough breweries like Rheingold and Schaefer are historical footnotes. But on an industrial-residential side block near the Montrose L stop in a stately brick structure that once housed Edward B. Hittleman’s suds shop, fermentation tanks and bottling operations have long since been scrapped, the space retrofitted to manufacture an altogether different taste of home: perfect pot stickers.
“We make 44,000 dumplings an hour,” says Terry Tang, 53, wearing wire-rim glasses, carefully parted gray-black hair, and onyx slacks. He’s sitting in the bright conference room of TMI Food Group, overlooking a conveyor belt sending hundreds of pearl-white, machine-crimped dumplings through a 170-degree steam tunnel. It’s tempting to pull a Lucy and Ethel and leap to the floor, gobbling fistfuls as they speed down the line. But doing so would disrespect Tang’s 32-year journey to culinary kingpin.
Since emigrating from Hong Kong in 1977, Tang has risen from part-time noodle maker to cofounder and CEO of an East Coast Asian-food powerhouse employing 140-plus Brooklyn residents. From Twin Marquis-brand noodles, wonton wrappers and spring rolls to Chef One pot stickers (several dozen flavors, teriyaki tofu to Thai chicken) to imported bubble tea, TMI aims to fill every Far East craving, filling freezers and fridges from Chinatown groceries to Fairway and FreshDirect and far beyond, nearby and nationwide.
TMI Food Group’s factory is a sprawling maze of clinically clean white rooms where workers peel and prep vegetables, machines extrude filling into dough, and an employee performs quality control, tossing imperfect pot stickers that don’t pass muster into the trash.
“I’m not a food scientist, but I do like eating,” admits Tang, who frequents Graham Avenue’s Italian restaurants, Bushwick taquerias and haute-Asian eateries like Megu and Momofuku Noodle Bar. His culinary education began early: He recalls his dad’s stir-fried pork belly as “one of the best meals I ever ate.”
But Tang’s childhood was far from storybook perfect. He came of age in the China of the ’60s and ’70s, a period of repression and persecution. The Cultural Revolution’s suffocating constraints forced intellectuals and students to flee, Tang among them—he relocated to New York during blackout-riddled 1977 and spent his days at St. John’s University in Queens in pursuit of an accounting degree. But, by night, he tied on an apron, punched the clock at a noodle factory and got covered with flour.
When he nabbed his diploma—and an accounting job at highpowered firm Coopers and Lybrand—his head spun with numbers, but his mind still revolved around food. After three years, Tang’s father pulled him aside one day.
“Do you want to open a restaurant?” he asked.
Tang thought for a minute. “Yes,” he answered with hardly any hesitation. He opened Tang’s Kitchen in Lindenhurst, Long Island, followed by a second location in Islip. But while sitting in traffic he concocted a Plan B: noodles.
“I knew I could do better,” Tang says of what was commercially available. After a few months on an overseas reconnaissance mission, surveying Asian noodle factories and punching the clock on production lines, he engaged in stateside low-grade corporate espionage, requesting samples of noodles and wrappers from competitors.
The research paid dividends: When his four-person factory opened on Canal Street in 1989, the noodles were fresher, springier, better tasting than the competition’s. Soon they landed in Chinatown grocery stores up and down the East Coast and as far west as Chicago. By 1992, Tang’s factory had outgrown the original 3,000-square-foot Chinatown digs and relocated to a bigger space in Bushwick. They soon outgrew that too.
“Every time we’d make a delivery, people would ask, ‘Do you have anything else?'” Tang says. So in 1999, Tang and his brother Joseph Tang created Chef One dumplings in another Bushwick space, devising flavors like top-seller chicken teriyaki. Demand soared as Tang sold to cruise ships, casinos such as Foxwoods and even Italian restaurants who requested sausage-stuffed incarnations (“I have to keep their names a secret,” Tang demurs).
Today Tang is giving back: active within the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, cosponsor of Queens’s annual Dragon Boat Festival and even aiding aspiring chefs with $2,000 “Smart Dumpling” and “Use Your Noodle” scholarships for culinary students at New York City College of Technology.
Not that he’s done growing the business. Expanding into the former brewery in 2007 brought new expenses (including a $50,000 clean-up of a leaky in-ground oil tank), compounded by the recent escalation of prices for eggs, wheat and dumpling fodder. Plus, the recession has thrown a monkey wrench in the company’s annual 15 to 20 percent growth (though an uptick in supermarket sales has steadied the firm’s bottom line).
And let’s not forget the bane of every small business: “The city always tickets our trucks,” Tang laughs. Despite these challenges he remains optimistically committed to his long-term goal.
“We want,” Tang says, clasping his hands together as pot stickers march down the conveyor belt in an endlessly delicious procession, “to make the dumpling as American as the hot dog.”
Doughboy Done Good: Terry Tang’s Bushwick dumpling factory is putting pot stickers on the culinary map.