Chinese-owned businesses all over Australia are celebrating Lunar New Year this weekend. And for 40-year-old, family-owned dumpling business Mr Chen’s, this time of year means big promotions and big business.
But, as the owners herald in the Year of the Ox, it’s also a chance to connect with and celebrate staff members and family, and for reflection on just how far the business has come.
Mr Chen’s is a family business founded by the eponymous Peter Chen, who came to Australia as a refugee in 1978, along with his wife and children.
In 1982, Chen became one of the first importers of Asian food into Melbourne, before moving into importing, then manufacturing, dumplings.
Now, daughters Nancy and Lucy Chen have taken up the helm, leading a team of about 25 staff members.
Over time, the business began selling authentic frozen foods to Asian grocery stores and restaurants. About 10 years ago, Mr Chen’s foods started to appear on the shelves of supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths.
Having grown revenues by about 100% over the past six years, the business has seen a boost over the past 12 months, as the COVID-19 lockdowns drove demand for high-quality foods at home.
The business has grown by about 30% and increased its household penetration by about 50%.
Now, Mr Chen’s is turning over about $20 million per year.
For Nancy Chen, Chinese New Year is not only an important time for connecting with her own family, but it’s also a big time of year for business.
She and the team always run promotions at this time of year, acknowledging the importance of food and family within Asian communities. There’s always room for party food and quick-and-easy finger foods, she notes.
It’s also a time when non-Asian people are inspired to eat more adventurously. There’s more information about Chinese New Year in the media, and generally more interest in general, she notes.
This year, Mr Chen’s celebrated Lunar New Year with a competition across its social media accounts, offering the prize of a $1,500 dumpling-themed staycation, including two nights in a hotel in Sydney, a $200 dinner at an Asian restaurant, $500 spending money, and a bonus of $100 worth of Mr Chen’s dumplings.
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However, this year is always a time when the business focuses on education and information, Chen says. One of her main focuses within the business is on making Chinese foods accessible, and easy to cook.
Chen was born in China and grew up in a Chinese family with a Chinese food business.
“I’m still asking, and I’ve got my mum and aunties to reference,” she notes.
“I can’t imagine how other people would work it out.”
She wants anyone to be able to cook Asian food at home, in a quick and convenient way, she says.
While the post-COVID-19 environment hasn’t had a major impact on this year’s campaign, it has made some things more pertinent. Of course, when overseas trips are off the table, a dumpling staycation could be just the ticket.
And, this year, more people than ever have been striving to cook up restaurant-quality meals at home.
There are a lot of people who love eating Asian food out, but have a fear of recreating it at home, she suggests.
“There’s nothing more disappointing than when you start a recipe and it doesn’t turn out how you wanted,” she explains.
Where work meets family
Finally, as a Chinese-owned and -led family business, Chen also uses this time of year as an opportunity to celebrate with her team members.
The office is closed on the first day of the New Year, she explains. The day before, the team took the time to share their own family traditions, stories and recipes for this time of year.
“We do work a lot on our culture and — especially during COVID — connecting with our team members,” she says.
“It’s a close-knit and very hard-working team.”
As we speak, Chen is also on her way to her own traditional family gathering.
She and her sister still see her parents every day, and running this 40-year-old family business gives her another way to connect with them.
“Coming from our background, with my parents coming from Australia with nothing, we’ve always seen them working really hard,” she explains.
“We always try to take that and bring it into what we’re doing … there’s so much experience to learn from.”