By: Cheyanna Sammy
Sitting on the border of Toronto and Pickering, Paul Wong’s Fine Chinese Cuisine has been serving the patrons of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for three decades. Over the years, Paul Wong’s has developed a well-established reputation making it one of the go-to Chinese restaurants in the eastern GTA. Not only is the menu vast in its options (see pictures below), the quality of the food is also what has given it neighbourhood distinction in the form of repeat customers that have been ordering every week since its opening.
On top of its quality food, Paul Wong’s is a local favorite because it purposefully caters to the tastes of the areas’ diverse population comprised of first, second, third, and fourth generation Canadians. In other words, Paul Wong’s makes no claims that its food is the same Chinese food that one would find in China. Instead, Paul Wong’s adapts Chinese recipes for its socially diverse Canadian populations who stem from all over the world. Their willingness to adapt to local customers tastes is a chief reason why Paul Wong’s has remained a staple for 30 years. It is the main reason why many of their customers start visiting as children with their parents and become patrons for the rest of their lives.
For much of the restaurant’s life, it boasted a dining room area draped with white linen table clothes and a fully stocked bar. Like many other small food businesses, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic initially brought business to a halt. Reductions in hours, and other attempts to find alternative revenue streams took centre stage. While the restaurant did have take-out and delivery options that were already popular, Paul Wong’s found creative ways to expand their business. They began utilizing delivery apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Skip the Dishes which were immediate hits. In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly increased Paul Wong’s take out operations. For example, its most popular dishes are ready within a fifteen-to-twenty-minutes of placing an order. And delivery offers the same menu items in forty-five-minute to Pickering, eastern Scarborough, and western Ajax residents.
While delivery and take out applications certainly helped Paul Wong’s get through its initial lull, dine-in business has picked up and has been booming since April 2021. So, while the pandemic did serve as a sobering reminder that restaurants can very much be on the receiving end of these worldwide disasters, their unique ability to persevere and come out stronger through new innovations like re-focusing on access to take-out and delivery, all the while and reaching new audiences is truly admirable. Just as important it shows how food businesses are essential for feeding diverse suburban populations.
The care that Paul Wong’s has for its community is also on display internally. For example, I have spent the last six years working at Paul Wong’s and I have nothing but positive things to say about the people I work for and with. I worked there throughout high school, as an undergraduate university student, and as a graduate student. As my bosses always emphasized the importance of education, they always accommodated my erratic school schedule because they knew that achieving my educational goals was my top priority. For which, I am grateful for.
The following is a selection of interview questions with the restaurant co-owner Vincent, in regards to some of the most pressing issues of the pandemic, that require complex answers.
Generally, what have the business trends been like? Including at the start of the pandemic up until now?
“Initially, the business was actually very slow when we went from March Break lockdown, the first three four weeks were actually super slow, we had cut down our hours and we were probably just staying afloat, not really making a profit. I think that initially people were just not comfortable with getting takeout food, there was a lot of doubt of what people could do and what they couldn’t do. What really kind of helped out was when there was a little government push to have takeout Wednesdays. They were advertising it on TV and when they did that it actually caused an up kick in the business, people were eating a lot at home and getting sick of eating the same stuff that they were eating at home and once they got that OK because of the advertising then they started to order takeout quite a bit. We definitely saw a huge uptake in business, for us it has just been a very easy transition because we did do a lot of takeout and delivery initially, and this just ramped it up so things were super busy. Even as of right now business has been increasing. Well, things are a little slower now but for quite a bit of time we were doing phenomenal business, every day was busy from the time that we opened until the time that we closed and a lot of new customers and what not. So, I think it has actually been good for the restaurant because we are making a lot of new customers. As long as people were stuck at home in our neighbourhood and looking for new things to find, or something to eat- Chinese restaurants in the area, and they found us they were happy with the business and we got more regular customers. So, people sitting at home was probably good for our business.”
How have you utilized some of the inevitable down time?
“During the three weeks of down time, it did kind of allow us to look over our restaurant in terms of quality, gave us some time to reassess. We made changes in packaging and how things were prepared, it was an easy time to put in some changes because we were not as busy. So, in that three, four-week period we had a little less staff but we wanted to focus more on making sure things were of higher quality, you know that food was prepared in a better way than when we were super busy. So, hopefully we set a precedence in terms of quality that we would like our chefs to proceed with from here on out and hopefully that would translate into more happy customers and better business. For us, contrary to a lot of other establishments and business we did use our down time and subsides to invest back into our restaurant and make some renovations when the dining room was closed. A lot of people were a little bit surprised because a lot of business were struggling but because we started to pick up business after that three-week period we felt comfortable re-investing into our restaurant and renovations for when things opened back up. We were able to renovate our bathrooms, change our floors, do some painting and upholstery, and do some light fixtures. With our new customer base and people walking in and seeing our dining room hopefully it is creating some anticipation for when they return and it gave us the opportunity to renovate our restaurant and not deny customers service.”
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, what was your busiest avenue for business? Dine-in, take-out or delivery?
“Prior to the pandemic over the last 20-25 years our business model has shifted from mostly dining room and few take-out deliveries to mostly take-out and deliveries with very little dining room. It is kind of hard to figure out why those type of things was happening, for myself, I believe as I was just talking about in our last question, I thought or dining room was getting very dated. We were doing a lot of business in takeout delivery so we were focusing a lot of our attention in terms of improving our efficiencies there and it had been a while since we had invested in the dining room. That’s why for us it was better, well not really better, it wasn’t a hard transition to go into the takeout delivery route of business, because 65-75% of our business was take-out and delivery. Which is, you know, more profitable for takeout and delivery because you don’t have to do as much service, there’s not as much overhead when we talk about takeout delivery because customers are coming in, taking their food, and leaving. We don’t have to worry about things like dishes and waiters. But to summarize, our best business avenue prior to the pandemic was our takeout business and during the pandemic it picked up and is still our most profitable source of income is through our takeout.”
With the mandated closure of dine-in services, how has that forced you to adapt in order to make up for that lost revenue? In particular, how has the implementation of delivery apps like Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes and Doordash helped business? Has there been any frustration with the amount these apps take per order and if so, how have you compensated for that?
“In terms of our dining room closure, as I had said in the previous question, our dining room really wasn’t a huge money-making venture, it was there from previous years, our initial opening, it has paid for itself and made a little profit so closing our dining did not cause too much of an issue for us, but it obviously resulted in a loss of revenue. But the uptick in business that we have seen after the first three or four weeks has made up for that and also we get to save a little bit because of the man power issue and require less people on the floor and because it has shifted completely to take out there is a better ratio in terms of payments for wages comparatively to income coming in because takeout is definitely better than the dining room for that. In terms our of delivery apps, initially we were very hesitant to go on delivery apps in their infancy, because they had stipulations stating that we had to offer our food at the same prices that they were offered in house, and unlike other franchises that can afford to do that- franchises have great margins- in Mom and Pop shops our percentage margin in terms of how much we take home is not really large enough for us to be giving the apps the percentages that they had deemed. It wasn’t until later on in the business when they gave us the ability to raise prices to whatever we needed to be successful that we started to entertain the idea of using the apps. So at the end of the day for us, we use the apps by raising our prices, but it is a significantly more expensive experience for customers when they go through the apps. I’m not 100% sure if they know or don’t know but they are paying for the convenience of having all of the restaurants in one location and we benefit from being there-the more eyes on our business the better- but like I said it’s a much higher cost experience so that is one of the apprehensions we had- I was worried some of our pre-existing customers would start using the service- but eventually I was more comfortable using the services because I like to think that the customers that use the apps, they love the convenience and they are willing to pay more for the convenience. There are customers that have already been calling us directly to place orders because their totals were significantly higher when using the app. It gave us more access to certain customers- especially customers who do not mind paying for the convenience of the app and money is not such a concern. I think that there is a little bit of overlap between our phone-in customers and the customers that use the apps, I think it is majority new customers from the apps. We would obviously love to convert our app customers into regular phone-in customers because it is better profitability for us, but at the end of the day the apps have definitely been beneficial to our business. In terms of if I think the apps are taking too much percentage wise and I think it depends. I think there should be a value on customer acquisition and processing, but it all depends. I don’t know what the numbers are for Uber to run successfully, but currently operating within profitable margins. One of my fears with the apps at this point in time, they are running at a deficit, but when they become vital for all restaurants and businesses to use them then all of a sudden, they will increase their commissions and make it less beneficial to the restaurants but we would be stuck with them now that we have implemented them as a source of our business. You know, is it too high? I’m not 100% sure. I think it’s a little too high, a big billion-dollar business is going to try to get as much percentage profit they can get away with, with us taking home the least amount of money and I expect their strategy is to squeeze the most amount.”
How has management had to step-up during these times? Both in terms of dealing with financial and COVID-19 consequences, but also helping “on the ground” so to speak?
“In our business model, our managerial staff has always taken an active role in day-to-day operations , you know as I would say about franchises they have bigger margins so managers can only deal with things out of the ordinary, but in our restaurant but we have to make sure all of our resources are working at all times. We work on the fly and we fill in all the jobs that are necessary whether it have to be in food prep, delivery, or packing, or customer service, but our management team has always had a diverse role. We would never the kind of management where we kind of sit in the back and just have to deal with extenuating circumstances. In terms of our compensation, that really hasn’t changed much on the management side, because for us, management is ownership. We would have to pick up more hours. I myself had to pick up more hours. Times are tough without the anticipation of more pay we just had to stay afloat and if we could continue to pay what we were paying ourselves that’s fabulous but if we had to take a hit we had to take a hit. The success and survival of the business was number one. In terms of our procedures, management has to do more work. We had to stay proactive with the province continually changing in terms of what was acceptable and not acceptable in restaurants. Whether our dining room could be open, the changes of the amount of people that could be inside of the restaurant. When masks were not mandatory, when they were mandatory. Also, some staffing concerns because we didn’t know what it was really like in terms of our employees themselves and how comfortable they are to come into work. You know, things are a little busier so it could be more, a possibility we could hire more, but it is a little more trouble to teach them the process right now and how things are going with COVID. Is this person going to be a trustworthy employee? We have just taken on the idea that we just do our best, especially myself and Peter, in terms of how much we put into the business. How many hours we work, and if we do need an extra set of hands we show up to fill that.”