Outside the Box
There’s a sketched meme depicting success that seems to be perennially popular online. On one side, there’s what people think it looks like — a straight line consistently trending upwards and on the other side there’s what it actually looks like — a jumbled squiggly lines representing detours and sidetracks and who knows what other bumps along the way, before the path straightens out and up.
Folks in all lines of work can undoubtedly relate — rarely is the road to success without obstacles. It seems especially pertinent in the food scene, though, as the industry is at the mercy of fast-changing food trends, surly online reviewers and the overall economy. Entrepreneurial chefs know that if they (and their businesses) are to thrive, they have to adapt and sometimes that means thinking outside of the traditional restaurant model.
Tarek Hassan’s path to his first restaurant involved a science degree, experiences in a long list of Ottawa restaurants and being part of Ottawa’s street-food scene for the last four years. Now, he’s wheeling his mobile food cart, Gongfu Bao, to its first brick and mortar home in the heart of Centretown.
During his engineering undergrad, Hassan found that he was spending almost as much time working at the university’s vegan food collective as he was on his schoolwork.
“Pretty quickly after doing some contract work, I realized that software development wasn’t going to be where I was going to be happy,” he explains, and so he dove into Ottawa’s restaurants.
Hassan’s interest in East Asian food comes from his mentors in the industry, including Michael Radford and Jonathan Korecki, whose cooking was heavily influenced by modern Chinese cuisine. He also worked in a bakery early in his career and was fascinated by dough.
“At some point, I developed an obsession with steamed buns,” he explains. He would keep a leftover piece of dough in his pocket from whatever he was making in the restaurant kitchen to practice shaping and pleating techniques (appropriately, “Gongfu” is a Chinese term that means any practice requiring discipline and patience).
The accessibility of street food is important to Hassan — it’s what spurred him to start his food cart years ago because his friends often couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurants where he was working. Though pricing a menu labelled as “street food” when guests are sitting indoors can be tricky, he thinks diners are familiar with “better casual food” these days.
"It’s fast, but it’s not fast-food,” he says. “We’re all about handcrafted product, local sourcing and responsible employment. Research shows that people are willing to pay for that.”
Popping up everywhere
Like Hassan, Mike Frank is a chef who embraces flavourful, casual dining. Unlike Hassan, Frank doesn’t see himself signing a lease for a restaurant space anytime soon. Originally from the Toronto area and probably best known in Ottawa for being at the helm of Mello’s diner, Frank currently moonlights around the city’s kitchens.
Starting out in the industry as a dishwasher, Frank quickly worked his way up. He preferred staying in one spot for several years at a time and absorbing as much as he could from the stint. “I didn’t jump from restaurant to restaurant. I made sure I could pull every experience possible [from the kitchen],” he says.
Arriving in Ottawa with a “rock solid” resumé, he took over at Mello’s and ran that kitchen until the beloved diner closed four years later. After that, Frank says he didn’t want to dedicate his time to working under other people. Though he missed the camaraderie he enjoyed working in kitchens, he came to realize there were other avenues to continue being a part of his industry.
He’s helped other restaurants open, done pop-ups and worked at various events and can now be found on Monday nights at Citizen as their “chef in residence.”
While running a food truck at the Arboretum Music Festival, Frank met Marc Doiron and Lori Wojcik, owners of the sister restaurants Town and Citizen. They hit it off and when Citizen opened in January 2017, Frank soon became a mainstay on Monday nights. With unique menus every week, Frank and his crew of Drew Fraser, Eddie Alvarez and Troy Zenebisis, put out playful takes on “corporate rip-offs” (think South Side Luigi’s) along with a focus on Meatless Mondays, as well as the occasional recurrence of the patty melt that was so popular when Frank was at Mello’s.
It’s this kind of freedom — no overhead costs, not being anchored to one place, and enjoying a changing menu — that Frank loves. On a night that is quiet for most eateries and watering holes, Citizen sees plenty of curious diners and fans of Frank’s cooking coming through its door. When he’s not cooking at Citizen or doing pop-ups, Frank is working at Topshelf Preserves.
Connecting with people outside the food industry — festival organizers, brewers and independent shop owners — has also opened doors for different kinds of collaborations that Frank hopes to expand on in the future. Admitting he would be reluctant to open his own spot at this point, Frank doesn’t see enough demand in Ottawa to open another restaurant.
“I feel there’s enough places out there now that I’m able to step into and have fun,” Frank says.
A welcome change and a challenge
Hassan knows that going from a mobile cart to a restaurant space brings new challenges, but he is eager for the change.
“I’m really excited to have a bigger crew and have people take on different parts of the business,” he enthuses (like having “an accountant do the accounting stuff.”). In his third year in business, the decision was made to pay employees a starting wage of $15, so, he says, “Ontario is catching up with us” when it comes to the minimum-wage increase. He is also looking forward to slowly expanding his repertoire and broadening the scope of the menu. Gongfu Bao will be open for lunch, dinner and late night, with a takeout window, as well.
He hasn’t embarked on this next step without careful testing. Hassan has held four pop-up dinners to test prototypes of menus and service concepts for the brick-and-mortar shop. Each iteration has allowed Hassan to refine his plans. The most recent pop-up saw Frank join Hassan in Ottawa’s east end. Heavy snowflakes floated down softly in the glow of the Bingo Hall sign as folks tucked in to the culinary collaboration across the street at Fontenelle Restaurant.
The Vanier diner had finished serving up eggs and bacon several hours earlier — the evening’s menu consisted of signature dishes from the two visiting chefs. There was crispy tofu, deep-fried Brussels sprouts and a patty melt burger bao to combine their two hallmarks (along with vegetarian and vegan versions to please just about everyone). By the end of the night, they had served more than two hundred burger baos to rave reviews. Once settled in his own space, Hassan hopes to host visiting chefs often, while Frank plans to pop-up solo at Fontenelle in the near future.
As he hustles to ready his restaurant in Centretown, Hassan knows that many will think immediately of competition and the potential oversaturation of the relatively small Ottawa market. But, he says, “critical mass is so important... the more good food there is in a neighbourhood, the more people will come to that neighbourhood.”
And Hassan is feeling energized by Gongfu Bao's Indiegogo campaign. At the time of publication, it had received 94 per cent of its $20,365 funding request to help furnish the diningroom and equip the kitchen with just a week remaining in the campaign. "I'm just floored at the support I've received from Gongfu fans, the restaurant community, as well as friends and family, of course," Hassan says. "That's not just financial support either. I've received tons of guidance from my mentors and role models.
"Jen and Steve Wall [owners of Supply and Demand] even gave us a full compliment of beautiful table bases they didn't need any more.It's amazing to feel you have a community behind you when you're taking on something so big."
It’s hard to predict how trends will cycle through the food industry in the future, but for chefs and owners without wealthy backers or working outside of established restaurants, freelancing or moonlighting may be the way to sustain careers. Hassan describes it as an “active market” and believes flexibility and a willingness to adapt will payoff. There’s no doubt the market is fluid, and as this duo has shown, creativity in the kitchen pairs well with a creative business plan.
365 Bank St., Ottawa, Ont.
Mike Frank's Meatless Mondays at Citizen
207 Gilmour St., Ottawa, Ont.