The recipes were top secret, passed from mother to daughter and perfected through years of travel and experimentation. When Nadia Liu Spellman opened her Weston restaurant, Dumpling Daughter, to glowing reviews in 2014, only three people knew her carefully chosen ingredients: Spellman, her mother, and her kitchen manager.
Spellman wasn't counting on a trio of dumpling pirates hatching an elaborate scheme to steal her recipes, clone her menu, and open a nearly identical dumpling restaurant an hour down the road – but, according to a newly filed federal lawsuit, that is precisely how Dumpling Girl came to open its suspiciously familiar doors late this summer.
"Pretty much everything you see in the restaurant and on the menu, I put together with my mom," said Spellman. "It's a very personal venture for me. It's not just me, it's my family — this restaurant carries on my family's name. This concept, this food we serve, it's been a longtime dream of mine. So I felt very strongly about it."
On Tuesday, Spellman sued the owners of Dumpling Girl in Millbury — Jie Lin, Ying Yao Xiong, and Huanchen Li — in US District Court in Boston, accusing them of several civil infractions, including misappropriation of trade secrets, unjust enrichment, trademark infringement, unfair competition, and false advertising. Lin and Xiong reportedly worked at Dumpling Daughter from early 2015 until July; they incorporated to form Dumpling Girl on July 13, according to state records.
Of the 52 items on Dumpling Girl's menu, 41 are identical or virtually identical to menu items from Dumpling Daughter, according to the suit.
Dumpling Daughter, for example, serves Three Day Pork Ramen, "NOT the instant kind!!!!!! Classic pork belly, soft egg, bamboo, red pickled ginger, kombu seaweed, scallions," according to a copy of the menu included in the suit. So, too, does Dumpling Girl, according to its menu included in the suit — though it is offered as "Pork Ramen," with one less exclamation mark and one less comma.
According to those menus, in both restaurants, the Crispy English Cucumbers are dressed with sesame peppercorn oil; the House Brewed Chrysanthemum Tea contains a "floral infusion with rock sugar;" and the chicken Ramen is a delightful mix of "chicken broth, fresh ramen noodles, chicken breast, soft egg, bamboo, greens, tomato, kombu seaweed." Dreaming of a sandwich with pork belly, cilantro, and cucumber? At Dumpling Daughter, it's a "Taiwanese Bun" — at Dumpling Girl, the bun is from Shanghai. In Weston and Millbury alike, the eggs are "silky," the mustard greens "pickled," and the beef "sesame soy simmered," the menus say. Even the order of menu items induces deja vu.
"We are totally different," insisted a man who answered the phone at Dumpling Girl and identified himself as one of the owners but refused to spell his name.
Asked why the menus appeared nearly identical, he replied, "We are not," and then hung up.
Spellman grew up in a restaurant family. Her parents, Sally Ling and Edward Nan Liu, ran "Sally Ling's" on the Boston waterfront and in Newton Center for decades, according to the suit.
When Spellman decided to open her own place, her menu was inspired by her favorite childhood foods and her travels through Asia, then refined through collaboration with her mother.
Xiong began working at Dumpling Daughter in January as an assistant to Spellman. She frequently volunteered to help in the kitchen and would often come into the restaurant on her days off to observe its operations, according to the suit. Lin started at the restaurant in March and worked as a dumpling chef, according to the suit.
Both women left in July.
Their actions in the months leading up to the departure, the suit alleges, "were an orchestrated scheme to learn all that they could in order to copy the Dumpling Daughter Mark in a virtually identical restaurant."
In August and September, Spellman began fielding queries from customers confused about whether she was opening another restaurant in Millbury, according to the suit. In mid-September, the suit says, Spellman learned that Dumpling Girl had opened.
A manager for Dumpling Daughter visited Dumpling Girl in late September, according to the suit, and pointed out the similarities between the two establishments. Xiong allegedly told her that "copying Dumpling Daughter was the purpose of what the defendants were doing," the suit contends.
In another conversation later that month, Xiong allegedly told Spellman's cousin that, "anyone can copy, everybody copies" and said that Spellman could "chase me for years because the [Dumpling Girl] LLC doesn't have any money," according to the suit.
Spellman's suit requests an injunction to stop Dumpling Girl from using Spellman's concept and recipes and seeks monetary damages that Spellman's lawyer, Brian Haney of Sweder & Ross LLP, said would be determined at trial.
Spellman said she has not been to Dumpling Girl and declined to comment on how she was feeling, beyond "strongly." Haney said he is confident his client has a solid case. He pointed to the two menus included in the court filing.
"That kind of evidence speaks for itself," Haney said.