Mean Bao was a restaurant we originally tried at the Bathurst and Queen location. Running into the new location in Leslieville was a pleasant surprise. The food's always been killer and we knew we had to sit down with Scott for a chat.
Sadi: So, how’s the business going, how is it doing?
Scott: So far, the business is going well. We’ve been here since September 3rd. September 3rd was our opening day. Everything’s been going really well, we’re about twice as busy as we expected when we opened up in this location. We opened up the place with the same sales expectations as the two locations in the West end, but it’s almost twice as busy here. It’s surprising to us, a good and a bad thing because we were really overworked the first few weeks. Understaffed, running out of things left and right. So it was a good and a bad thing. Up to date now though, hired a few employees, gotten everything under control so we’re comfortable working.
Sadi: Do you think it was all hype? The reason it was so busy the first few weeks, or do you think it’s sustainable?
Scott: It’s definitely sustainable. The sales in the beginning, the first few weeks, was a lot to do with the hype. It’s a very trendy neighborhood, so everyone’s very up to date on what’s going on in the neighborhood. What the new store’s going to be, and what they’re all about. We had quite a few reviews and good hits, and some good feedback on our social media. We were voted best bao in Toronto from BlogTo. We got a few good reviews from BlogTo and Now Magazine a bunch of stuff like that, so we’ve gotten a little bit of good media and good feedback.
S: So how long have you been in the restaurant industry? What were you doing before this restaurant?
Sc: Before this restaurant I was working at a private Sports Club. Called the Granite Club. I was working retail in there, so it was completely out of my field from when I came into the restaurant business.
S: So why did you decide to go into the restaurant industry then?
Sc: To be honest it was something that was happening regardless of whether I wanted to be a part of it or not. It was my family who started the business. My uncle is an entrepreneur. He has a few franchises under his belt. He’s open up probably 20 stores of the same franchise, it was called Roasty Jack’s, there’s still some in Vancouver right now. They got together and decided to jump on the bao trend. Because the baos are getting pretty famous in the US, and really one of the only bao places in Toronto, one of the more fast-food ones is Banh Mi Boys one of the other ones is Momofuku, and they’re known for their pork belly, but they really only have one bao on their large menu. So we decided to specialize in baos. So we kind of decided there was a market for it, to specialize in baos. So we kind of went with that.
Andrew: So was that the only thing that was motivating that decision that there was a market for it, or was there something personal, like did your uncle love baos?
Sc: Well my uncle loves the restaurant business. My uncle that started the business is an entrepreneur. He’s used the business side of things and opening up businesses and he loves that aspect of it, and my other uncle, his brother, he’s been a cook for the last twenty, thirty years. So he’s been helping him with the franchise that my uncle had before and also on and off at different restaurants. So we had the brains behind the work, we had the cook, we had a good team to start leading us. So they kind of came to the family and said ‘Who wants to be a part of it?’ and my brother and I were interested at the time. I was going to go into Police Foundations before this. I was looking to go into Law or something before this. So switching into business was like a completely different field.
S: It sounds like you’re’ still dealing with customers though, I guess. Did you find any of the skills transferable here?
Sc: It’s hard to say. Well definitely all my skills from all my jobs transferred here. Even from some of my smaller jobs like Cineplex. That’s when I started realizing the importance of the smaller systems that they have in place. Like the cleaning checklist, these small things that are so important to a business. Definitely everything I’ve done to this point has helped me here. Another thing is, the reason I decided to go into business instead of police foundations, at the time I was sort of still iffy about going into the police, and I wasn’t too sure, so I decided to do this for a little while, and I knew it was a ton of work to run a business, and my uncle kind of came to me and asked me if I wanted that challenge. So I sort of saw it as a building exercise, or an exercise for me to better myself and better my work ethic and everything that I’m trying to do. Personal skills, my organizational skills, all of it.
S: Was there anything you found that was especially challenging? Was there anything that you felt you didn’t know about it?
Sc: Everything. Everything man. To be honest when I said ‘Yeah I’ll do it, I know what hard work is.’ I said that in the beginning, and then once everything hit me, once I realized how hard it is to run a business and run people, and not run people, I should say ‘manage’ people. Managing people is one the hardest things in my opinion. Because it’s all about the team in my opinion, you can be the most skilled person in the world, but if you don’t have personal skills if you can’t work with people, it’s going to bring you nowhere.
A: Were there two or three other things that you learned about yourself that you didn’t know before?
Sc: Well personal skills is a huge thing, managing people is a huge thing. Apart from that, this really tested my work ethic and tested me as a person. Everything about it really made me questions what I really wanted to start doing, and the amount of work I’m going to have to do in any field if not this one, if I choose a different field. How much work I’m going to have to put into anything to be successful is almost the same amount of work I’m putting into here. My work ethic has improved greatly.
S: Are you getting enough sleep?
Sc: (Not hesitating) No. Definitely not. That’s what I mean by when I go into my next field, I’m putting in a ton of work no matter what it is. I’m not going back to my old work ethic. No matter what it is, I’m going to try and do as much work as I was doing here. That’s sort of what justified me in going into the business as opposed to Police Foundations. I told myself that regardless of whether this works out, after this, I’m going to be so well prepped for Police Foundations, well prepped for life. It’s made me realize…you know I’m doing taxes for the business, I’m doing a lot of accounting for the business, it’s made me also realize how unorganized my personal life is. I do my own taxes as well, and everything I do at home, I’m way more organized now, everything here has just been brought over into my personal life, organization skills, and people skills to work ethic.
A: So you mentioned good reviews. I’m sure you’ve seen bad ones as well. Do you guys pay attention to bad reviews?
Sc: Honestly we concentrate on the bad reviews more than the good ones. We find that any bad outcome or bad review is going to help us in trying to get to the next level. It definitely tells us sort of, or humbles us, as to where we’re really at. We try to not kiss our own ass or pat ourselves on the back too much. I’m starting to realize that the really good thing about messing up, or the really good thing about problems is that there’s always a good thing that can come out of a problem. So that’s one thing that definitely take from bad reviews. We take it in, and we try and improve on those particular bad reviews.
S: What’s the most popular dish here?
Sc: Our most popular dish is the Pork Belly. We’re known for our pork belly. To be honest I think that’s why we were rated number one. Momofuku’s known for their pork belly, and to be honest I haven’t tried it. And it’s an error on my part for sure, I haven’t tried our biggest competition, but from what I hear from a lot of people is that it’s comparable.
S: Have you had any of the other baos in Toronto?
Sc: Yeah, I’ve had Banh Mi Boys, I’ve had this other one on Ossington, but the name escapes me. I’ve had a few bao around the city. I’ve had most of it.
A: What’s the dish you’re most proud of serving? Which one is your personal favourite?
Sc: My favourite would probably be…I don’t know if it has anything to do with my personal life, and how I’ve eaten too much meat over my life, but Tofu is definitely one of my favourites. I’m a heavy meat eater, and it goes to show how good that bao is. And I never used to eat Tofu, I was never really open to it. I always thought it was pretty bland, every time I’ve had it was pretty under seasoned I guess. But this one the sautéed sauce on it compliments it very well and gives it a bit more pop.
S: Are there any bao that you guys are still experimenting with? Or anything that you guys want to introduce but haven’t yet?
Sc: Yeah there’s quite a few things we want to introduce. There’s a lot of baos that we want to introduce. We were thinking about doing just a regular Chashu bao. Everybody knows the Chashu. If you know baos then you most likely know the Chashu BBQ pork bao. So we were thinking about doing our version of that. Even breakfast baos, eggs benedict baos we’re looking into. And I personally love Eggs Benedict so I can’t wait to try that.
A: So when you’re not eating bao, what’s your favorite place in Toronto to eat at? What’s your spot?
Sc: That’s hard. I don’t know. I love Italian food. I love Mexican food. If I was to choose though…one of my favorite Italian spots at the moment, at least one that I can afford right now, is Grazie, at Yonge and Eglinton. If I was to spend a bit more, and go out and spend a good amount though, probably Il Mulino. And it’s over on the west end of Eglinton. It’s very very nice.
S: What’s your Italian dish?
Sc: I love everything on the Italian menu. I love all Italian food. It’s one of my favourites. And definitely Mexican. But unfortunately I can’t find as many good places here for that though. North American high class cuisine is based off of Italian and French right?
S: So how’d you guys come up with the name Mean Bao?
Sc: It was actually my sister who came up with it. And she’s not Chinese funnily enough. And the name Mean Bao means steamed bun in Chinese. If you say it in English, you’re almost pronouncing ‘steamed bun’ in Chinese. So it’s a bit of a play on words. So that’s why I say it’s funny that my sister came up with the name because once every body heard it that understood Chinese, they were like ‘oh my god that’s amazing, that makes sense.’ It kind of clicked in everyone’s head. Because my sister was really just saying that we make a really ‘mean bao’. Like the English expression.
A: Do you mind me asking about your uncle? You sound like you come from an entrepreneurial family. It makes me curious what is he like? What motivated him to start this type of business?
Sc: To be honest I know I don’t know too much. I know he used to be a manager of a big restaurant. I forget how many seats. I can’t remember the name, we never got into those details. But he was on top of everything, he was doing his job very well, he was managing his people well. This was about thirty or forty years ago. But he kind of got into the restaurant business, managing the front of house stuff. After that he kind of wanted to do his own thing, he didn’t want to work for somebody. So he took out an investment, took out some money, got a partner, and started up a business.
S: Do you know what that first business was?
Sc: Yeah that first one was called ‘Pasta Perfect’ I think. And then a little after that he opened up ‘Roasty Jack’ which was his main project that he did. But you asked me what kind of person he was, and thinking about it, he’s definitely a very sociable person. Leader type of guy. He’s a visionary, he has a lot of plans and projects for the business all the time. A very good leader, one of the best leaders I’ve ever had in my work experience. And that’s not just because he’s an uncle, I’m trying to look at him like a business partner. He’s very good at dealing with your issues, sitting down and going through your expectations and staying up to date with you. He’s very approachable and it makes a huge difference.
S: Is there a piece of advice that he or anyone else may have given you that really stuck with you?
Sc: So much, so much advice. I don’t think I could tell you all of it.
A: What if you had to give us a top three, or what comes to mind?
Sc: One of the main things, is that I ask myself every day ‘What’s the best use of my time?’ I’m supposed to be managing people. I’m too used to diving in, and doing the operational work that I should be delegating to other people. That’s one main thing that I ask myself every minute of every day. ‘What’s the best use of my time?’ Trying to be the most efficient. Another thing is, that the restaurant business is a Penny Business. Not to be cheap or frugal, but you have to be conscientious of how much money you’re spending everywhere. You have to reduce and not exactly give the impression that you’re trying to be cheap, but you’re trying to manage the finances. That’s one main thing that I’m constantly telling myself, trying to find the best way to spend money, and the most efficient way to spend our money. I don’t know if I told you this already, but this is the first location where I’m doing everything. The first location I opened up with the chef who was helping me cook. The second location I opened up by myself, but my uncle James was doing the cooking and accounting for me. But now at this location I’m responsible for everything. So delegating my position is one of my biggest challenges. Trying not to be here and trusting the people to still work the same way. I’m a huge micromanager. It’s one of my issues. And it goes back to ‘What’s the best use of my time.’ And I keep asking myself that every day. And that helps with trying to manage the whole store.
A: So what’s the best part of this job? What part of it is the most fun for you?
Sc: The fact that I’m now that much more responsible. That’s one thing that’s really driving me and at the end of the day, why I’m happy. It’s really making me a better person. No matter what I do after this, if this doesn’t end up working, it’s helping me get to the next level in my life. No matter what I do, I’m putting my 100% all into it. This business really woke me up. Before I wasn’t really motivated to work for anything or anybody, at the Granite Club, I wasn’t motivated to become a manager or go further in that field. This has kind of woken me up and how much work I should be putting in to anything no matter what it is, I’m not going to regret anything.
S: So with that in mind, if someone was to open a restaurant, what’s the one piece of advice you would give them?
Sc: It would really depend on that person and what they’re opening and what their work ethic is. But one piece of general advice I’d give to every business owner that’s opening, is what I told myself in the beginning. ‘If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.’ You have to take responsibility for everything. If you’re an owner in the business, it doesn’t matter if you’re a 25% owner, you don’t take 25% responsibility, you take 100% responsibility. That’s how you should look at things.
S: So how did you react to some of the negative reviews you’ve gotten?
Sc: Every time I try and blame myself and try and say that ‘the customer is always correct’. You always have to do something about the issue that they have. Even if you think it’s just their opinion and they’re biased. A couple problems that they had include that the meat might be overcooked, or a piece of hair in their food, a couple complaints like that, I never try and say that it’s just their opinion. I investigate, see if the meat is actually like that. I still try and make changes.
S: What about the opposite, where a customer has an overwhelmingly positive experience? What happens?
Sc: Oh that happens a lot. It happens quite a lot to be honest.
S: Because it happens a lot, was there ever a time or two, or a reaction that really stood out for you. Or a reaction that really got to you? Or do you sort of just laugh it off now?
Sc: I wouldn’t say we just laugh it off now. We’re pretty used to it, but that’s why we concentrate on our bad reviews. There’s not a lot of bad reviews, so the one’s we do get we try and concentrate on. Also, people in Canada especially will not tell you if they had a bad experience. Most of them will not tell you, they tell you by not coming back right?
S: What do you mean by in Canada? Have you had an experience where people are very up front?
Sc: I’m from Jamaica right? In that sense, they’re very up front. They tell you right away. We ask a lot of people how the food is, and they feel uncomfortable telling you the food was bad or they had a bad experience. They’ll say ‘Oh ya it was good’ and just not come back. It’s refreshing and a good thing for me to hear that honesty though.
S: So did you grow up in Jamaica?
Sc: Yeah a little bit. I moved to Canada when I was ten.
S: So you grew up eating Jamaican?
Sc: Yes, Jamaican food for sure. Chinese on the side. Way more Jamaican then Chinese.
S: So is that where the idea for the Jerk Chicken Bao comes from?
Sc: Yes, from my family of course. We decided to do something a bit more Jamaican inspired.
S: Where would you say is the best place to get Jamaican food in Toronto?
Sc: My mother’s house. (Laughs) Apart from that, honestly, I tried Patois recently, that place was pretty good for Chinese-Jamaican. For authentic Jamaican probably not the best. But authentic Jamaican good food is hard to find. It’s mostly poor man’s food, and it’s mostly overcooked Jerk, and no offence to Chinese, it’s like Chinese fast-food. Jamaican, it’s almost impossible to have a five star restaurant here.
S: I think that’s everything man, thanks for your help.
Sc: No problem I hope that was good.
S: Thank you for doing this!
181A Carlaw Ave.