A Philly OG soup dumpling master is embroiled in a turf war with a former business partner over restaurant naming rights. Again.
It’s the second time in five years that his dim sum is the focus of a fierce court battle.
Jintao “Tom” Guo is the namesake behind Tom’s Dim Sum, one of Chinatown’s more popular outposts for Shanghai-style soup dumplings. He is now being sued by his former business associates for opening a restaurant with a near-identical name — less than 20 feet away from one of their locations.
The culinary branding feud is playing out in plain view on East State Street in Media, Pa., where the grand unveiling of Tom’s Dim Sum Mania last month left Delco restaurant goers a bit confused.
Just two doors down on commercial strip sits Tom’s Dim Sum Media, an established offshoot of the original Tom’s Dim Sum on 11th Street in Center City, under the Convention Center tunnel.
If the two-letter difference between Tom’s Dim Sum Media and Tom’s Dim Sum Mania sounds too close to be coincidental, rest assured it is anything but.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. Eastern District Court, the owners of the original Tom’s Dim Sum Media allege their former associate opened the Mania version to deliberately mislead the public and “steal away” business from their well-established dining room. They claim Guo was never a partner in the busy dumpling house, and owned no rights to the biz name — even if it’s his namesake and a brand he helped establish.
But that’s not not the way defendant Guo sees it. The veteran dough-pincher recently told Fox 29 that his former partners used his recipes and his reputation to build their business, and then forced him out. So he started up his own shop next door.
“You do everything, then people use your name, then they kick you out,” Guo told the TV station. “What do you think? Is that right?”
But Guo’s story goes much deeper than that. He’s one of the chefs known for sparking Philadelphia’s dumpling boom over the last decade. Few dispute he helped xiao long bao and other dim sum classics become popular here — but his previous dumpling endeavor also ended up in a legal fight over naming rights.
Branding the dumpling
Back in 2007, a little hole in the wall called Dim Sum Garden opened up its cramped storefront next to an exhaust-spewing bus station under the tunnel at 11th and Arch Streets. Guo was working in the kitchen, one of the recipe keepers and a business partner in the fledgling business.
This is not the Dim Sum Garden you may now know on Race Street — at least not in spirit.
In 2008, a year after opening, Guo sold his stake in the 11th Street hideout to Dajuan “Sally” Song and her mother, Shizhou Da. Together, they ran the shop until 2013, when Song convinced her mother to expand to brighter, more modern trappings at the current Race Street location.
After the transition, Guo swept back into the original 11th Street location with new business partners and began operating the spot as Dim Sum Garden again, according to the Inquirer. The only problem? He had sold those rights to Song and Da, according to court records, and now, Chinatown had not one but two Dim Sum Gardens, just blocks apart.
The first trademark lawsuit ensued.
Robert Black, a Philadelphia-area attorney who represented Song and Da on Race at the time, recalled that the former business associates settled out of court.
And so Tom’s Dim Sum was born.
“He left the partnership and sold his ownership interests, and when he came back with other partners, he re-took the name that he signed off on so many years earlier,” Black told Billy Penn. “We filed, and we prevailed, which is why it became Tom’s Dim Sum.”
The settlement would prove fortuitous for Guo and his new associates. They closed the aging 11st Street location for spell, remodelled with wooden floors, nixed the aggressive fluorescent lighting, and expanded the menu.
Tom’s Dim Sum re-opened to gushing reviews, and maintains a loyal following for its flaky scallion pancakes and piping-hot xiao long bao.
Over the last three years, those business partners implemented an expansion plan. They first launched on East State Street in Media, and then, in early 2019, announced plans for another spinoff called Dim Sum Factory in Horsham, Montgomery County.
But there were business disagreements over the expansions, Guo told Fox 29 last month. So Tom was reportedly forced out of the budding Tom’s empire.
Tom takes back his name?
After the bitter fallout, Guo took his name and his longtime recipes and opened up shop using both — right next door to his rival ex-partners.
But it’s unclear what ownership stake he has in his own brand.
The plaintiffs in the case are Philly Dim Sum Garden, Inc. (the business entity that owns Tom’s on 11th), and Dim Sum House, Inc (the owner of Tom’s in Media).
In an interview with Fox 29, Guo identified himself as a minority owner of Tom’s Dim Sum Media. But the plaintiffs in the suit flatly deny Guo had any ownership stake.
“Despite any statements to the contrary made by Guo…at no time has Guo been a member, officer or partner of [either Tom’s location],” the suit reads.
James Pearl, an attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
The lawsuit claims that “Tom’s Dim Sum,” despite just a few years in business, is a recognizable brand in the Philly-area food scene, and that Guo’s new venture is illegitimately siphoning their business. Customers have already ordered from Guo’s dining room under the impression that it was the original Tom’s location two doors down, the suit claims.
While seeking unspecified damages, the lawsuit also asks a federal judge to order and injunction to Guo from using either “Tom’s” or “Tom’s Dim Sum” in any restaurant he opens — in Media or elsewhere. There’s a hearing scheduled for Thursday this week in federal court.
For now, both Delco restaurants continue to operate normally, as do the two dim sum houses in Philadelphia.
Reached by phone during the Tuesday lunch rush, Guo referred questions to his out-of-town attorney (who did not return phone calls), and told a reporter he didn’t have time to talk. Sounds of a bustling kitchen whirled behind him.
Said Guo: “I am too busy right now.”