The Crispy Skin: Staying Relevant In The Industry

I’m no expert in the field of business administration or marketing. Hell, when I was doing “The Aimless Cook” every week, I had no intention of owning a restaurant. Back then, my goal was to take the show as far as it could go, make a full-time job out of creating online content, and take advantage of whatever opportunities came my way. It worked pretty good for a while, but grew much too slow for me. I was also working a full-time job that paid very well, had benefits, as well as a pension, but there was something missing. There was an element of excitement and intrigue that I needed. My creative me was locked inside for far too long and was rattling the bars to break out. YouTube offered a place for that creative release, but at that point, it was like trying to release the pressure of a dam about to burst by giving it the most minute pin prick.

When I was given the opportunity to run a small concession stand at Millarville Farmers Market, I was excited but a little apprehensive about the whole idea. I mean, it was a once a week market that ran on Saturdays from 9 am to 2 pm, very little capital was needed to start things going, and all the equipment we needed was already there. After much thought and consideration, my wife finally convinced me that we should give it a go. She knows me too well and she knew that this was something that I could do that would be an outlet for all this pent up creativity and boredom that I was feeling.

I’ve always been one of those people that gets bored easily. There are so many jobs in my life that I’ve had in addition to so many projects that I started and never finished. This obsession with food is the only thing I’ve managed to stick with and as a result, it has helped me evolve and develop over time. Why am I telling you all this? I suppose it illustrates a point. I am in constant need of some sort of stimulation that will elicit a creative response. Whether that be a niche that needs to be filled, a craving that needs to be satiated, or a problem that needs a solution, I want to be able to answer that call. Much is the same with food and the restaurant industry. It’s evolving. Not just the food, but the way restaurants work. If you think that you can just start a food business and look at it like a glorified lemonade stand, collect the money and go home, you need to get your head checked. On the other hand, if you want to have a business that is sustainable, dynamic, and relevant, read on.

The initial inspiration to open Eats of Asia came from a cookbook called, “Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant” by Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibowitz. At first, it was the recipes that caught my eye. To look at food, break it down into it’s craveable components, amplify them, and create something completely delicious that had that “WANT” factor was a revelation to me. I was making tasty, good looking recipes on YouTube, but to make that same food with that added dimension was game changing. As I read the memoir of Myint and Leibowitz, it occurred to me that they had no idea what they were doing when they started their restaurant. They also had nearly no capital to invest, no equipment, no clue. They rented a Guatemalan snack cart, slinging their brand of flatbread tacos at night to the industry crowd, eventually moving into an unpopular Chinese restaurant that was mainly doing take out and delivery. This restaurant gave them a stage to present their offerings to the public and gave birth to what is now commonly known as the “popup”. This “shoot from the hip” mentality of opening a restaurant was extremely appealing to me. It had a dangerous naivety that spoke to my inner “starving artist” and said, “Hey, Jay. Let’s just do something stupid again.”

I shouldn’t say that I ran into this thing like an idiot screaming, “YOLO!” (No one should yell, “YOLO”) Making a decision to go full time entrepreneur mode is a very difficult decision to make, especially when you have others to consider. But you do need a bit of that careless mentality to drive you to that moment where you let go and just say, “Fuck it. let’s do this.”

Now remember that moment when you let go and officially became an entrepreneur? This is the catalyst for the near psychotic personality that all entrepreneurs possess. It’s that innate and unconditional love we have for our baby that we will protect with our life. It’s the idea and cause that we believe in so passionately that many of our closest friends and loved ones will call us crazy when things get bad and abandon us while we still hold on for dear life until the storm clears. Well, not really, but really.

I remember seeing all the food trucks in Calgary the first year the pilot project began and thinking of how cool it would be to have one. I also knew that food trucks were expensive and that I had no business thinking about getting one anytime soon. We were about to start the Millarville Summer Market and I needed a concept that would make our Asian food something unique and craveable. We also knew that we would be one of five vendors in that kitchen, each featuring a different cuisine: burgers, Mediterranean, Asian, gourmet hot dogs, and Indian. It was the first time Millarville would have multiple vendors doing food in the summer so we decided to make the market a destination. We dubbed it the “Saturday Street Feast”. We streamlined a very simple menu of about 10-12 items and basically made ourselves the food truck without a truck. Our food was a selection of favourites inspired by my youth in the form of the most relatable delivery system out there: the rice bowl.

Location

“Hey, come out and visit us at Eats of Asia every Saturday for the Saturday Street Feast!”

“Sounds cool, where is it?”

“Millarville Farmers Market”

“Where?”

Location they say, dictates a lot about how your potential business is going to perform. What you don’t hear a lot of, is that you should consider your location very carefully when planning your concept, or vice versa. It’s also not solely about getting a location with the most foot traffic. If you are in a blue collar industrial, be prepared to serve breakfast and a quick lunch. Be ready for a crushing service and be prepared to serve it all up fast so that they remember you and come back. If you are in a residential area, do you want to be the community spot where people go for that transitional environment between home and work where they can chill? Grab a coffee and quick bite in the morning on the way to work and a drink on the way home? If you are a fine dining restaurant, do you offer a location that has a great view of the river or in a cool shopping district with ample parking and a patio perfect for people watching and good conversation? Think about the places you frequent yourself and ask yourself why you go there. Is it in line with your daily routine? Is the service good? Is it secluded and romantic/relaxing/engaging? Other than the food, which we’ll get to, what reason would you have to go there instead of somewhere else?

I should say that although Millarville was located in the middle of nowhere, it did have the oldest farmers market around. Each week brought around 3000 people in the summer with nowhere else to eat or drink but our kitchen. It also had a rodeo every year, as well as horse racing every Canada Day that attracted a huge audience. Also in November, it featured a very popular Christmas market with vendors from all over selling their artisan gifts and all that. So to offer up something these folks have never experienced before was exciting. While a lot of people opted for the brisket burgers and fries, the remainder came to try something different in the form of Indian food or Asian rice bowls. Meanwhile, a new culinary magazine called Culinaire featured an article on some of the top seasonal restaurants in the city and surrounding area. We made that list among the big boys like the Teatro group. The timing couldn’t be better. We had a busy summer with lineups I was afraid to look up at. We focused on making our food the best it could be, offering something new to a curious audience, and sharing a bit of our culture.

New Boundaries

Offering a unique food to a brand new audience is somewhat daunting. Even today, we have to consider our guests very carefully when rolling out new dishes. We can’t just assume that fermented tofu marinated chicken or SPAM and kimchi fried rice will be accepted just like that. Though the North American palate is more open to new and worldly flavours today, we still have some challenges when introducing new ingredients. There are a couple ways we do this. One way, is that we can introduce an ingredient as a component of an already familiar dish, such as putting kimchi as a side for something fairly familiar like grilled short ribs, or in a bowl of ramen. People will usually ask what it is, they can try it and usually it goes well. Only the very picky eaters will set it aside. Most of the extreme case fussy eaters rarely leave their comfort zone anyway, which is why we have “gateway dishes”.

A gateway dish is a dish which is super familiar, with components you can say, and not super exotic. In our case, Chicken Teriyaki bowl. It’s fried chicken pieces on rice with vegetables, braised mushrooms, teriyaki sauce and Japanese mayo. Most of our first time visitors will opt for this dish. They’ll eat it, love it, come back a few times and order it again until they want something new. Then usually we’ll get them to try something a bit different, like the Thai Red Curry Chicken bowl. Then you know how it goes from there.

Another way to introduce something new is to incorporate it into a dish that everyone already knows. For example, Sisig. Sisig is a popular Filipino bar snack using the meat from the face of a pig chopped up and fried with a delicious sauce, onions, chilies, and a fried egg. Okay, maybe doesn’t sound like the most approachable thing, but put it on nachos, in a taco, or a burrito and suddenly there’s an air of familiarity. The fact of the matter is that restaurateurs before us went through great lengths to make their food appealing to a Western palate back in the day. A lot of those dishes are the result of the culinary evolution that took place while they were trying to make a living. We still have that challenge today, and what we are seeing is that we are coming up with brand new dishes and further evolving the culinary landscape. Fusion as a concept is redundant. It’s been around since the silk road days and no one called it “fusion” cuisine then, so why is it such a buzzword now?

Seeing Through New Eyes

It is a given that a chef will work at many places in his or her career. Mostly, as a way to see and learn new techniques, experience new environments, and expand the skill set. The spirit of learning should never stop. In fact, it’s super important to embrace opportunities to learn with open, loving arms. As an owner of a restaurant, I am a very busy person and the notion of travel is somewhat of a fantasy sometimes. Yes, we have been fortunate to travel to places a few times in the recent years to experience new cuisines and take in the experience of being in a different world, but you really don’t have to be a globetrotter to expand your perspective.

There’s this thing called the internet that’s pretty huge right now. There was a time when I was in a low place in life where I would go downstairs, pop on headphones, and hit YouTube to see all the J-vlogs (Japan vlogs) I could watch. In those times, I absorbed tha language, the food, culture, and all the weird little idiosyncrasies that made Japan so … Japanese. In many ways, I felt like I’d been there. A few years later when I working in a Japanese kitchen, everyone would ask me how many times I’d been to Japan. When I said I’d never been, they would be astonished at how much I knew about their culture.

I also take time to read a lot of food publications like Bon Appetit or visit sites like Food Republic, Serious Eats, or Eater. I’m not huge into food trends, but it’s always essential to have an idea of what’s going in the bigger world of the industry. That doesn’t mean that you gotta go out right now and learn how to make cronuts or edible cookie dough. Just know what people are craving these days. What’s the deal with the cookie dough? Nostalgia? Ok, then sit down and open a journal and write down what kinds of foods are nostalgic for you. Is it fried chicken? Fried chicken SKIN? Ok, now let your creativity flow from there.

Competition

Being in a farmers market, I hear a lot of complainers. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a cesspool of negativity that I have to plug into my earbuds and listen to podcasts just to shut myself off from the outside for a while. Whenever a new vendor moves in, an old vendor complains that the new product will compete and interfere with the old vendor’s product. Usually the old vendor is someone that has been established for some time, in a comfort zone, and is unwilling to adapt to change. I thought this was the case when we first moved into the Crossroads Market. Initially, we have moved into a booth that was away from the food court that measured 9′ x 18′. It was enormous compared to our first booth at Kingsland Market that was literally an old closet that was 10′ x 10′. When the time came for us to grow again, we purchased the kitchen of a vendor that had recently closed up shop in the food court for a really good deal. Next to it, an empty space where a retail store had just moved out. Finally, we had a great location in the food court with a space that was double what the space before was. We knocked out the wall between the two spaces, built a huge bar that had space for eight stools, and hit the ground running. We were now the third Asian restaurant in the food court with a small Vietnamese deli halfway down the corridor, and a Sushi stall right across from us run by a lovely Korean lady and her son.

A week before opening the new spot, I was prepping as usual when the mother from the Sushi place came over. She was pleasant and friendly. Always saying good morning and her son was chatty too. When we were in the old spot, he’d sometimes offer to take our garbage out after the market closed. So here she is with her friendly smile coming over to say hello I thought. I said hi, and the first thing she said was, “I want to talk about our menus.”

I instantly went on defensive, flashing back to all the complainer talk I had heard from farmers markets in the past. In my mind, I was thinking, “Look lady, I have nothing that’s gonna threaten your business here. I’m just selling rice bowls and ramen.”

Once we started talking, I quickly learned that she had been there six years before I moved in and was just curious to learn about what we were offering and how we could complement each others’ products. We came to an agreement that we would consult with each other when we wanted to do any changes that might potentially cause a problem for the other, but we never really got to that. One time, she actually asked me if she could add bibimbap to her menu since we already had it. I told her of course she could. I also told her that her Korean recipes are so incredibly good and asked why she didn’t feature them more. At the time, they offered mostly Japanese food with the grab and go sushi they made.

Over time, they took out the additional soda cooler they had and replaced it with a small bar for four stools, they added more Korean dishes to the menu which are incredible, and have also grown to have one more staff on hand to handle the added volume they got as a result. We are the best of neighbours now, often borrowing from each other when one runs short. We order in their rice, and life is good. The whole moral of this story is that competition is good. It keeps you relevant and sharp in this industry that’s always changing. If you wanna complain, you’re not willing to adapt and frankly, you’re digging your own grave.

I often see a vendor that moves in and thinks they can just put up a sign, give some samples, and think they’ll sell. I also see them move out in about 2 months. I don’t know what people think they’re getting into when they start a business in a farmers market, or what preconceived notion they have that maybe a farmers market is easier, but it’s just like any other business out there. You have to hustle, be willing to take risks, write cheques, be adaptable, listen to your audience, and respond in a timely fashion. And if you aren’t promoting yourself on social media, you are pretty much making your hard word at least ten times harder. But social media is for another day.

 

–  Jay

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