It’s been quite a run, the last six years at Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon.
Founded in 1994, the business occupied a small storefront in a Convoy Street strip center, keeping six tables well occupied.
Six years ago the business owners had the chance to become the center’s anchor tenant. They decorated the new space — formerly occupied by a grocery store — with sidewalk café touches and put in an extensive bar. Five years ago, Sandy Vuong Tobin and her family bought the business. The stretch of Convoy grew more trendy, then COVID hit. Like its neighbors, Dumpling Inn set up tables under tents in its parking lot.
Today Vuong Tobin is talking recovery, and the variables that go into making a restaurant turn a profit. She is seated at a big table in the saloon part of the restaurant, unused as it is noontime. She has room for 360 customers but, for now, can only operate at 50% capacity. One of her greatest needs at the moment, she said, is staff.
“We’re fortunate to have the team we have,” she said, adding that it is “all hands on deck” as Convoy Street shakes off the COVID economy. It’s not unusual to find her running food out to tables or serving as hostess.
She wasn’t always doing this.
Buying Into the Vision
Vuong Tobin studied psychology and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine with a minor in management. Restaurants had always been a family business, but Vuong Tobin said she had a “comfortable career” doing marketing for a dental corporation in Orange County.
It was a different road from the one her father took. Phat Vuong emigrated from Vietnam in 1980 and then worked his way up from dishwasher to head chef at a restaurant at the then-new Horton Plaza shopping center. Today he runs his own small restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard.
Vuong Tobin recalled the day her father asked if she wanted to go into business for herself. Her initial answer was no. Then she learned of the vision for Dumpling Inn.
She grins behind her mask and looks around. The place is clean and bright, but there are no white tablecloths. This is a place where you can dress up or come as you are. You can bring your grandmother here. “It’s very traditional and nontraditional,” she said. “It’s comfortable, organic, fun.”
Kentucky and Convoy
So Vuong Tobin traded her office job for 12-hour days, running a San Diego restaurant with her sister Pricilla Vuong. The common denominator with both jobs is work with people, which Vuong Tobin relishes. “I miss the 8 to 5, but there is the same human interaction.”
The restaurant business has also offered opportunities not available to a marketing person with an 8-to-5 job. Prior to COVID, the Vuongs were able to travel to Kentucky to produce special editions of Maker’s Mark bourbon, selecting the particular wood which would give the finished product its unique flavor.
In addition, there is the unique feel of Convoy Street. The neighborhood is “a super fun area,” Vuong Tobin said, full of family businesses run by people in their mid-30s. Convoy Street attracts a young crowd, she added. The area has not undergone a gentrification but rather a revitalization.
Dumpling Inn is now open for indoor dining. Vuong Tobin said she is hopeful for the business when she sees former customers return, and when she sees the attitude of her staff.
“I have an amazing team,” she said. “When I look at them, it keeps me going.”