Mama’s Dumplings offers pockets of joy
An East Kootenay business expands with help from programs that support small business, agriculture and food production.
The sun glints off the sparkling clean, red and white food truck—out of which waft mouth-watering, savoury smells and the enticing sound of oil sizzling in a pan. Inside, the staff of Mama’s Dumplings—a popular food truck serving traditional Northern Chinese fare—happily work away, chatting and laughing. The energy is enthusiastic and optimistic inside the mobile headquarters.
Coco Seitz (pictured above), the business’s owner and operator, has been running the food truck for the better part of a decade, feeding Cranbrook and the East Kootenay. More recently, the company has shifted, pivoted and, ultimately, accelerated, with support from the Trust. Immigrating to the Basin from Jilin, China, in 2009, with a passion for food and the connections it creates, Seitz began cooking traditional recipes and sharing them with her friends and family.
Her food’s popularity and following grew and, in 2014, she opened Mama’s Dumplings. Now employing three full-time staff, the business boasts a wider market than ever before—including selling frozen products in Basin stores—and continues to expand into new territory. The transformation began five years ago when Seitz reached out to Basin Business Advisors (BBA), a Columbia Basin Trust program that provides free, one-to-one, confidential business counselling and assessment services.
“The advisor was able to tell me what I was doing right and give me suggestions for how to improve and increase my revenue over time,” Seitz says. “It’s given me knowledge to become a smarter entrepreneur—not just focusing on what I do with my hands in the business, but looking down the road and doing financial planning for the future. I’ve learned how to have an entrepreneur’s vision.”
For example, 80% of the business’s sales once came from the food truck and the rest from selling frozen products in stores. With guidance from BBA, Seitz shifted this so that half of the sales now come from the food truck and half from more lucrative store sales. Mama’s Dumplings are now available in 26 stores throughout the East and West Kootenay.
The Trust’s Summer Works program—which helps Basin small businesses hire student employees during the summer season—was another helpful resource in 2020. The subsidy enabled Seitz to hire a youth for both food production and staffing the food truck at farmers’ markets. With less cash flow during the pandemic, the wage subsidy was, according to Seitz, “a huge help when we needed it most.”
That employee returned in 2021 and became responsible for training other student staff. Business renewal, and local food production and access, are both priorities of the Trust. Bolstering small businesses, regional employment and economic growth in the Basin are especially relevant while recovering from the challenges associated with the pandemic.
Also, food producers and farmers play an important role in the region by creating employment, education and volunteer opportunities, and enhancing access to local foods. Participating in the Basin Food & Buyers Expo has also been incredibly constructive for Seitz’s business. This Trust supported event—held in person in 2019 and virtually in 2021—was an opportunity for food producers, growers, chefs and grocers to gather, connect and reflect on the future of their industries.
“The essence of the food expo is connecting people and producers to what they need,” says Seitz, who spoke with other attendees at the 2019 event about transportation challenges for food producers in the region. Then, during 2021’s virtual expo, she was able to launch her idea of buying a refrigerated van and offering an affordable delivery service between the East and West Kootenays. This would bring both her own and others’ products to a greater number of stores. The idea was a hit—and Seitz has since made it a reality, called Advancit Logistics.
Seitz also participated in the spring 2021 virtual #BuyBasin Festival, an event hosted live on Facebook that showcased products and services from around the Basin. “In the coaching I received in preparation for the event, I was able to learn a lot about marketing on social media,” she says.
Even with the abundant growth of her business, it’s clear that Seitz is just getting started. She’s currently working toward offering Mama’s Dumplings in storefronts in other provinces. She also plans to expand into a larger food production space, and introduce additional food trucks across B.C. within the next five years—bringing Mama’s Dumplings’ fantastic fare to more foodies than ever.
The #BuyBasin Festival is just one of the Trust’s initiatives that draws increased attention to businesses in the region: a total of 112 of them in spring 2021. Another example is the Buy Local Grants program, which helps organizations promote local businesses through campaigns and events. One recipient was the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce, which created the “Shop Where You Live” campaign at the end of 2020.
This included social media marketing, city-wide branding, a retail map directory, community engagement initiatives and a robust marketing plan. Over 500 Castlegar businesses participated in the campaign. Together with the Holiday Buy Local Grants—which encourage Basin residents to source holiday gifts locally—and #BuyBasin Festival, 2,145 businesses have benefited from these business-focused supports in the region.
Photos courtesy Columbia Basin Trust