Passion for Chinese dumplings fuels Hoefener’s entrepreneurial dream
by Chuck Gordon

Karen Hoefener ’07 loves being an entrepreneur almost as much as she loves Chinese dumplings. She eats them for breakfast, dinner, a midnight snack. “People love our product,” she says. “I love our product. I eat it all the time.”

She doesn’t necessarily enjoy spending 10 hours a day pinching dough around tofu, chicken and mushroom fillings, but she can’t get enough of the other stuff associated with launching a company: the negotiating, the number crunching, the problem solving. Oh, and being impulsive, when necessary.

Take her foray into Whole Foods in the fall of 2018. Hoefener badly wanted to get her frozen dumplings on the shelves at the organic-foods giant. In the world of healthy, all-natural products, Whole Foods is the Holy Grail. Gracing their shelves would lend Nomad Dumplings a certain cachet and put discerning eyes on a product she believes could become an American staple.

Karen Hoefener holding bags of Nomad dumplings

About a year after launching, she finally got her shot. In October of 2018, Whole Foods was opening a store in the gentrifying Navy Yard area of Washington, D.C., just south of Capitol Hill. Nomad Dumplings, which had recently been selected to be involved in Whole Foods’ Metro Innovation Launch, would be featured. For Hoefener, it was a big deal, but there was a problem: The words “No GMOs” on her packaging just weren’t going to fly, not with Whole Foods. The company allows only certified companies to display the phrase “Non-GMO,” but Hoefener’s startup, although producing GMO-free dumplings, couldn’t afford the certification. The phrase on her packaging was just too close for comfort.

Most of Whole Foods’ executives were going to be at the grand opening. It was a great opportunity for a tiny startup. With only three weeks to go before the event, Hoefener had to change her packaging.

“I called up my supplier in Canada,” Hoefener says. “I was like, ‘How long will that take?’ ‘Three to four weeks.’ Nope. Can’t do it.”

She started looking on Alibaba, the giant Chinese online marketplace. Hoefener lived in China for a number of years – it’s where she learned to love dumplings in the first place – and she knew she could get the packaging done cheaper there anyway. But in three weeks? It was a gamble.

Hoefener eventually hired a company just outside the city of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, to make new Nomad packaging that replaced “No GMOs” with “No MSG.” Then she waited. As the grand opening drew nearer and nearer, she got a little antsy. A week before the big day, she was working a “pop-up” event in Washington when she got word that the bags wouldn’t be ready to ship until the following Tuesday. No way would they be on U.S. soil in time for the Thursday opening.

“I worked all year to get the Whole Foods account,” she says. “I didn’t do all that work to miss it by a week. Not for a flight to China.”

Without hesitation, Hoefener booked a flight to Hong Kong for 4 p.m. the next day.

Finding her passion in China

Hoefener has had a fascination with China ever since a friend taught her Mandarin vocabulary words during recess at their Long Island elementary school. The friend’s parents were from Sichuan, and Hoefener ate at their house often. “I loved Sichuanese food,” Hoefener says. “Her mom would always make it for me, but she would make it not spicy.”

Hoefener took Mandarin in high school, went to Beijing with W’International while at Wingate, learned to love spicy Chinese food, and eventually signed up to teach conversational English to Chinese schoolkids in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.

At Wingate, Hoefener had formulated a post-graduation plan: Move to China, learn Mandarin, get a job in the coffee industry. Why coffee? “Because I love it,” she says. “It’s one of the best products in the whole world.”

Bag of dumplings

Having already switched her major from marketing to history education – “My family wanted me to be a teacher,” she says. “I tried so hard to convince myself that that’s what I wanted” – she finally settled on history. She made the best of it, writing her senior thesis on the role of women in the coffee industry in Guatemala, in order to beef up her java bona fides. “That way when I move to China I can get a job in the coffee industry,” she recalls thinking, “because it’s going to explode there, and I need to be a part of that.”

Hoefener admits that she was “not a good teacher.” But the two years she spent teaching kids how to order a hamburger (or dumplings) or talk about Taylor Swift and K-Pop weren’t all for naught. She taught about 400 students her first year, 1,000 her second. She soon realized they were a captive audience for a history major who was a marketer at heart.

“I would conduct consumer-behavior tests on them,” Hoefener says. “I always found Pepsi fascinating in China, because Pepsi Max was introduced while I was there. Coke Zero was already there. Pepsi Max had such a greater following than Coke Zero. I thought, It’s the opposite of the U.S.” So she did a little market research, with her students.

“It turns out that the word ‘max’ has so many positive associations there – it’s big, it’s great, it’s powerful – whereas ‘zero’ doesn’t,” she says. “Zero here means thin. Zero there, at least in the province and city I was in, didn’t have as many positive connotations.”

After teaching for a couple of years, Hoefener completed her China plan by scoring a marketing job with a startup coffee company in Beijing, which she says provided great training for her own plunge into the startup world a few years later.

In China’s capital, she also developed a taste for dumplings. Hoefener started taking cooking classes, and a coworker helped her learn how to make dumplings. She was hooked. “On top of them being the best food you can eat, they’re a really fun food,” she says. “And they’re a street food. We would go out to get them at least every Friday night.”

After Hoefener had lived in Beijing a year or two, her parents persuaded her to move back to the US. Living in Manhattan and working for a restaurant association, she missed China, and she especially missed eating dumplings. Even in Midtown, she felt like she was in a dumpling desert. She thought they should be available on every block, but instead she had to venture to Chinatown or another borough to find them. “I was like, ‘If I have this issue here, I’m sure people in the rest of the country feel the same way,’” Hoefener says. “They should be on every corner. And people should be able to make them at home.”

The seeds of Nomad Dumplings began forming in her brain. So she enrolled in the MBA program at Georgetown University, and a couple of years later a company was born.

At a crossroads

Glen’s Garden Market is exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find D.C.’s best organic, non-GMO frozen dumplings. Situated on a side street a short walk from the Dupont Circle Metro station, it’s a combination market, sandwich shop, coffee shop and bar. It’s a popular spot for a daily shop, a quick bite at lunch or a beer after work. The solar-powered market, started by former environmental lawyer Danielle Vogel in 2013, specializes in local suppliers, especially women-owned companies.

“Some of the greens they get here come from a local rooftop grower,” Hoefener says as she makes her way through the market to buy an iced coffee.

Vogel was Hoefener’s first customer. Glen’s likes to be the first to offer a product, and a week after she first sat down with Hoefener, the bright Nomad Dumplings bags were in Glen’s Garden Market coolers. “It happened very quickly,” Hoefener says.

Vogel was impressed with Hoefener’s determination to buy as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.

“It was clear from the start that Karen’s approach to sourcing integrity aligned with our own,” says Vogel, who says she always has a couple of Nomad bags in her freezer at home. “There’s no one else in our region making a product anything like Nomad Dumplings, so they filled a need, while advancing our mission. It couldn't have been a more perfect fit!”

At Glen’s, the purple, yellow and red Nomad packages sit side by side with organic frozen empanadas and waffles made from the yucca plant. Glen’s is the type of shop Hoefener likes for her product to be in, but she also knows that there aren’t enough Glen’s-type markets in the country to keep Nomad viable on their own. In the past year, Hoefener has signed deals to appear in a few Whole Foods stores and in all 19 Mom’s Organic Market shops, in four states.

Impressive growth, but Hoefener knows it’s not enough. “If we don’t grow, and we stay at 30-something stores, we’ll fail,” she says.

For one thing, Hoefener has to take a salary at some point. Right now, she’s living a fairly common lifestyle for the owner of a startup, regularly working 14-hour days and rarely taking a day off. Many of those hours are spent in a shared commercial kitchen space in northeast D.C., cooking, filling, freezing and packaging dumplings.

"Small food businesses thrive or fail based almost entirely on the resilience of their founder. Karen's got resilience for days."

When Hoefener is away from the kitchen for a few days, it’s usually work-related. Earlier this year she spent four days in Japan investigating machines that can do much of the labor for her. She’s looking to buy a couple of machines she can link up via conveyor belt so she can ramp up production.

“We’ll go from a semi-automatic small machine to an automatic dumpling-pinching machine,” Hoefener says. “And then, in a perfect world, if this works, it will go on a conveyor belt to the steamer, then go on another conveyor to a glass freezer, then go to another conveyor, where it will go to a packaging machine that will package it.”

She’d still have to do the cooking and employ labor to put the packages in boxes and put the boxes in freezers. In fact, she would employ more than the one person she does now, because the automated system would enable her to expand into more stores. Hoefener has contracts with stores in New York and Pennsylvania just awaiting her signature, but she can’t act until she can increase production.

“The worst thing we can do is promise something we can’t deliver,” she says. “That’s why we’re holding, which is painful. Some people would say, ‘Jump! Why aren’t you jumping?’ I would say, ‘I’m trying to.’ I’m just trying to get everything together so I can do it. To buy one machine is really expensive.”

Hoefener is weighing whether to take out a small-business loan or bring on investors. So far, she’s financed the entire operation out of her own pocket. Take out a loan, and she’ll retain all her equity. But an angel investor could also prove beneficial. “Is that somebody you want on your team?” Hoefener asks. “Because if it is, that could be more positive than negative. I want angels I want on my team whose advice I want. Then, selling equity for investment capital is worth it.”

These are the types of questions entrepreneurs inevitably have to ask themselves. And make no mistake: Hoefener is an entrepreneur at heart. If her enthusiasm and drive are any indication of future success, you’ll be able to pick up a package of Nomad dumplings one day soon at your local market.

Just ask Vogel, who deals with local startups every day.

“In my observations, small food businesses thrive or fail based almost entirely on the resilience of their founder,” she says. “Karen's got resilience for days. I have full confidence in her ability to successfully navigate the complicated world of consumer packaged goods. She has adapted well to feedback, created meaningful and symbiotic partnerships with retailers, and consistently produced a product that has been very well received within a populated category.”

Hoefener has learned a lot about the world of startups in the past two years, and she’s imparted some of that knowledge to Wingate students, participating as a judge, via Skype, for Wingate’s version of Shark Tank. “Some of those kids were so impressive,” she says.

Hoefener especially found herself sold on those students who showed initiative and seemed most willing to devote themselves fully to their vision. Those who would, say, drop everything and fly to China to change one phrase on a package.

Going to great lengths

Nomad Dumplings’ slogan is “Colorful Dumplings, Well Traveled.” Colored dough is one selling point Hoefener has been banking on. She also wanted to offer more vegetarian options besides mushroom. And her dumplings are microwaveable.

Another hallmark of Nomad’s offerings is that they’re good for the environment. Hoefener, an omnivore who leans vegetarian, is happy to offer a chicken option but believes that it’s more socially responsible to limit meat consumption.

Nomad Dumplings has a social conscience without screaming it. “It’s our quiet selling point,” Hoefener says. “I don’t want to lead with that. We just happen to be socially responsible. We just happen to be healthy.”

Soup made with Nomad dumplings

But even though her dumplings are GMO-free, she can’t claim that at Whole Foods. Hence her mad dash to China on that fall weekend in 2018. It was a rush of activity, followed by nervous fretting. She got no sleep the night before the 18-hour flight – after the pop-up event she had to pack, clean up the kitchen and make her regular dumpling deliveries before heading for the airport. She then had a day to refresh and rejuvenate before the anxious pacing started.

On Monday morning, she hired a driver to take her to Shenzhen, a sprawling, busy manufacturing boomtown whose population has exploded from 30,000 four decades ago to 12 million today. Still unsure about the whole spur-of-the-moment mission, she kept bugging her rep at the company that was making her packaging. “On Monday, I’m walking around the city texting: Is it ready now? Is it ready now? Is it ready now?” she says. “They probably hate me.”

Finally, on Monday evening, she gets the call: The packages are ready. The next morning, after fighting traffic for three hours, she gets to the factory to pick up her order. After taking a tour of the facility (an activity she found reassuring) and being treated to lunch, Hoefener packed up her new Nomad packaging in a couple of large suitcases and headed back across the border for the return flight.

She slept the entire 18 hours back to the US. “The stewardess shook me awake when we landed,” she says. “They didn’t even wake me up for the food service.”

But she made it back in time for the Thursday launch, with her substitute packaging. And even though she had just slept for nearly a day and hadn’t eaten since Tuesday evening, she was buzzing with adrenaline.

“I go through Customs, and he says, ‘What were you doing in China?’” Hoefener says. “I said, ‘Well, I got Whole Foods! Let me tell you the story.” She excitedly gives the Customs officer the short version: “I just got Whole Foods three weeks ago. I had to change the packaging. I started this company. Whole Foods is my dream. I said, ‘It’s on my first-two-year business plan. I’ve now got every store on my first business plan. I’ve got 10 stores, Whole Foods and Mom’s being two of them. People said I’m being too aggressive, but I’ve got them. I had to go there to pick it up because the launch is tonight.

“‘I don’t know what Trump’s making my tariffs,’ I said, ‘but here’s my paperwork, and I brought my checkbook. What do I owe?’”

She still had to get to her kitchen and stuff the new packages full of her delicious dumplings. From there, it was on to Navy Yard, to rub elbows with Whole Foods executives.

“I get into an Uber to go to Whole Foods, and he says, ‘How’s your day going?’” she says. “I say, ‘Well, let me tell you …’”


To order your own Nomad Dumplings, go to www.nomaddumplings.com. They’ll ship to you.

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