The house of the one-ounce sandwich. That’s how Stratis Morfogen, who comes from a Greek diner background courtesy of his father, grandfather and great-uncles, describes Brooklyn Dumpling Shop.
The new concept aims to pump out Philly cheesesteak dumplings, lamb gyro tzaziki, three-blend cheeseburger, chicken Parmesan and more savory or sweet fillings in bits of dough out of a technology-enabled, efficient space with an automat format.
“I think it’s the greatest form of distribution: cost-effective, error-free,” he said about the automat, where food is placed in hot or cold lockers for customers to grab and go. Its first store features a blown-up photo of a glamorous Audrey Hepburn peering into an automat locker, circa the 1960s.
The concept dates back to 1895 in Germany. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first New York automat in 1912, and built about a half-dozen locations. Post-Spanish flu, their automats took off. “And here I am, 100 years later,” he said, noting he wrote the business plan in 2019, before anyone knew the havoc COVID-19 would wreak.
The first Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, in the East Village of New York City, surrounded by NYU students who can newly afford to live in the neighborhood as the pandemic slashed rents, is a work in progress, a visit in late June showed.
A cook prepares a huge pile of Philly cheesesteak filling, throwing in handfuls of salt in a kitchen that’s already too small—they’re looking for nearby space for a bigger commissary as the concept grows. Franchise deals are inked in Connecticut and in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The chef at Morfogen’s fine-dining restaurant, Brooklyn Chop House, came in to train the cooks, said general manager Hilary Street, and they’re waiting to roll out new flavors until each one is just right. The dumpling machine took months and months to arrive from Taiwan at the restaurant, which stays open 24 hours every Friday and Saturday and pumps out 1,000 orders on those days.
The technology has a few kinks, too, with staffers standing out front to instruct customers what to do. “It’s hard to get all the tech to talk to each other,” Street said, but those are merely growing pains for what she sees as a smart strategy—like Chipotle, putting them into college neighborhoods. “It’s a scene at night.”
The dumpling idea grew out of Morfogen’s Brooklyn Chop House, where they had dedicated a small area to making dumplings. Morfogen recently inked a deal for a second location, taking over a Buffalo Wild Wings space in Times Square for a considerably reduced rent. His first book, “Damn Good Dumplings,” was published in August 2020.
“I decided to fuse my two culinary loves—diner classics and Chinese food,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “They may seem like such disparate worlds…So, I searched for a common thread. Using the dumpling as my canvas, so to speak, I could both showcase the food I grew up on—corned beef, bacon cheeseburgers, gyros and more—as well as incorporate classic Asian flavors in unique ways.”
Morfogen traces his roots to the Morfogenis brothers, his grandfather and three great-uncles who immigrated to New York from Greece but dropped the suffix to circumvent discrimination. They opened Pappas Restaurant on the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, and from 1896 to 1970, Pappas was one of the “it” spots in New York City, Morfogen wrote.
“Every time I’ve done a new restaurant concept it’s always been the food, and with Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, nobody has a lamb gyro dumpling or a peanut butter and jelly dumpling. We’re re-creating the sandwich and the dumpling,” he said.
It’s a perfect combo, he believes. “My dad owned about 14 restaurants and diners. So as a kid I never thought about taking a bite out of that pastrami sandwich because it was as big as my head,” but now, “I eat pastrami dumplings like they’re donuts,” he said. “We’re in a lane by ourselves, because we’ve smashed two cultures together.”
Culinary Q&A with Stratis Morfogen
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
We have basil in the backyard. So I cook some garlic, I add fresh basil from our garden, I add chopped tomatoes, nothing from the can, and then I add mushrooms, and I dice up some chicken, and I toss it with farfalle pasta.
If you could have any restaurant-related superpower, what would it be?
I want to be an automat. I want to have limited direction. I want to be automatic.
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?
Has to be ice cream. I live on it. I travel for Carvel. Maybe it’s so ingrained in my body, because Tom Carvel [born Anthasios Karvelas and the founder of Carvel’s] was part…of my father’s circle of Greeks. That was a little clique of Greek entrepreneurs, zero education, and they did pretty well.
If you could have any chef cook you dinner, who would it be and what would they make?
Daniel Boulud is my brother’s mentor and he’s family to us. His foie gras is amazing. The way he does it, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever tasted.
What’s your favorite foodie city?
Capri, Italy. Then a quick second would be my mother’s hometown in Sparta, Greece, where you’d eat in little country restaurants where they’d take the water pitcher and go to the stream. You’re literally drinking from the stream. And then after that, Napa Valley. My brother was the chef of Tra Vigne. I spent a few years going back and forth. It brought me back to Italy and Greece.