Three Fold Noodles + Dumpling Co. has arrived at its new location in Riverdale on Rebsamen Park Road — just not the way it originally planned. Instead of being in a brand new building, it’s in a trailer on wheels.
“The [pandemic] situation pushed me to have to come up with an idea to make Three Fold survive,” Lisa Zhang, Three Fold’s owner and chef, said. Zhang had never even been in a trailer before, much less cooked in one. After one week of analysis and two weeks to obtain permits and power, Zhang opened Thursday, April 16, and didn’t know what to expect or if people would come. As it turned out, people did come — a lot of people.
“It was really overwhelming, especially the first and second day,” Zhang said. “The good news is that people are coming and showing their support. And it’s very stressful. I’m afraid to disappoint them.”
In the trailer, Zhang isn’t able to use some of the powerful equipment she uses at the Main Street location. “The trailer gives you 50 amps of power and we probably need 100,” she said. The circuit breaker was overloaded the first day and created some problems.
“The first day was a lot of fun,” Zhang said with a laugh. In the trailer, she’s using a home-cooking style deep fryer from Target for her sesame balls. The deep fryer connection kept going out. “I called out to the cashier, ‘Stop selling sesame balls. It’s not a good quality! Don’t charge them, just give it to them. Shame on me.’ ”
Zhang’s daughter, Rebecca Yan, Three Fold’s general manager, told me last week by phone that they’ve been working with an electrician and had about 90 amps of power, and were expecting to soon be running with 100 amps.
“As a personality and character, I like this challenge,” Zhang said. “We keep on improving, and we keep getting more organized. This week I started training my other staff. I said, ‘You need to put everything exactly the way I designed. No more, no less because it’s such a tiny space. Everything has to be more organized.’ They feel the same way. Anyway, we manage it. I even enjoy the open air. It’s like outdoor cooking, like you’re camping or having a picnic. So you can get out of the trailer right away and see the customer in the open air. I’m even joking with Rebecca, ‘I think this is my destination when I retire. Let’s do a food truck,’” Zhang said with a laugh. “It’s challenging. Everyone is taking the challenge very positively. Not too much concern. Only our guy Tim, the big guy who runs the food, I feel so sorry for him having a sunburn. [Laughs.] So we bought him a landscaper hat. I said, ‘Don’t worry about the look, just protect yourself.’
“But I’m really proud of our employees. They keep up with me speed-wise, quality control, freshness control, everything well, just the unexpected traffic [the first two days of business] made our supply line short. One time we were short of pork dumplings, another time we were short on chicken and the noodles. The cashier has to call them back and ask if they can change it from pork to chicken. And then they say, yes, they’ll change to chicken, and then the chicken’s out. But keeping it short, we made it. And after three days last week, we got everything settled. The equipment, workflow, supply chain.
“This pandemic time is stressful for everybody, especially old people like me. But I have to say, on the other hand, I’m enjoying the people. Working with people and the support of the customers — I really truly see the American spirit as a community. They support each other, encourage each other, help each other, so it’s a good experience.”
One of the reasons you relocated to Main Street was for kitchen space, right? What’s it like to suddenly have to work in such a small space?
One of the main reasons Three Fold moved to the Main Street location was to have an open kitchen. We wanted to make a showcase of the traditional Chinese wok cooking of the dumpling, not stir-fry. I want to bring back the authentic flavor and also the authentic way the Chinese cook. By doing so, we doubled our team. That means labor cost doubled. So basically in concept, I’m going backward. I’m glad I did so because I really achieved the goal. People can really see our staff cooking and kind of bring the cook and the staff closer to our customers. So when they’re eating, they’re watching, they’re enjoying. We want to make that environment unique, and close and very friendly. The trailer is 20 feet by 8 feet, a total of 160 square feet. To be honest, I have no idea how it works. I think I can brag on myself at this point, I’m very good at organizing from a big space showcase to a miniature showcase.
Has the pandemic changed your plans for construction on the new Haybird location?
Yes, yes, that’s a big change. In fact, my contractor came over and had lunch, and I almost put my name on the contract. Just one day. Like, tomorrow I’ll sign, and then that day the governor closed the city.
Oh wow, so you were going to sign and that same day the no dining-in order was put in place?
Yeah. If I’d signed the contract, there’s no mobile option.
You’d just have to wait it out?
Right. So we’re still waiting, almost a month and a half. Financially-wise, it’s dragging Three Fold down badly. So it’s completely used up every penny. We used the last portion to get the trailer out. We’re not dying. That’s me, I have to have a solution, no matter good or bad, I need a solution to prevent the whole ship from sinking. I’m glad we made this decision. I don’t know how it will go in the coming weeks. We may have broken even. Even without profit, I don’t worry about it. With the PPP loan, we improve, but we haven’t gotten the money yet. So with the support from the government and with this trailer — which is the effort from all the employees. If we work together, we’re out of danger.
Three Fold’s Main Street location was only getting about one-third of the average traffic after dining-in was suspended. So Zhang came up with the “Reheat and Eat Program,” a fun and simple way to assemble and reheat her food at home.
“The Reheat and Eat was launched due to COVID-19 so people can stock up for the week and get out less,” Yan said.
All Reheat and Eat orders are sent to the Main Street location where you can request curbside or pick up in the store. (If it sounds complicated, go to their website, where there are clear instructional videos for each individual meal.)
I went to Three Fold Mobile yesterday and ordered a Half + Half Bowl. It was immensely flavorful, and the textures of the noodles and dumplings were perfect. I mentioned this to Zhang.
“I’m glad. It’s not the same cooking equipment, but I hope the texture and flavor, especially the freshness — I guarantee that one. I hope you’re not able to tell.”
I couldn’t. If I’d closed my eyes and gone into a meditative state while chewing, I might’ve been able to picture myself in a reality where I was sitting in Three Fold’s Main Street location, amongst a crowd of flavor seekers, happy to be out and about, eating great food, supporting local heroes that make it for us. In the meantime, Three Fold in the car or at home is a welcome relief.
Zhang added, “If you write an article, if there’s any chance, I do want you to add my thanks to three parties. Of course, all the customers for their support. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. And I want to thank my employees for hanging in there as a team. I’m really proud of them. And the third party I really want to thank are all the partners that support us. For example, we have two facilities, and both our landlords are going to defer the rent. It’s a big number, so that helps us. The equipment — Aimco has really supported us and continued to bring equipment as we needed, but deferred the payment. All the things with the city — approving us for the permit for this trailer. And the electric company came right away with a very low charge. So this is the effort of everybody. If you’re thinking the food is delicious, you should thank them.”
Three Fold Mobile is located at 1509 Rebsamen Park Road, and it’s open 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
“This move is temporary,” Zhang said. “But we’re still really enjoying it.”