Ed Wong was a new player in a gentrifying neighborhood but his story was rooted in its Chinatown identity. His new ice cream shop was lauded for its imaginative flavours and we quickly grew enamored with the creativity behind them. Ed was kind enough to chat with us about his story.
Sadi: So let me start off by asking, how is business going these days?
Wong: Business is great! You know I opened this shop thinking it would just be this kind of nice quiet neighbourhood shop and it would slowly build in like 2, 3, 4 years or something like that and then the whole neighbourhood would have gotten to know me and it would have been this kind of nice, regular business and I’d earn a living and I’d go into retirement, you know, and all that sort of stuff. And so we opened June of last year and then BlogTO did something on us and then NOW Magazine did something on us and people just kind of kept talking about us. So, we got inundated. We were just flooded, just crushed completely since basically the second week we were open. I’m getting tons of people coming down from Richmond Hill, from Markham, from Mississauga, from all over Scarborough, from the Yonge-Sheppard area so that’s sort of-and that’s primarily, like I’ve identified the neighbourhoods, and that’s primarily kind of this hard-core Asian crowd.
Andrew: I know that before you had this ice cream shop, you had an ice cream shop in Hamilton. Tell us a little bit, I guess not just that shop but also like, how you got involved in the ice cream-making business.
W: You guys are far from it, but you’ll hit something called a mid-life crisis at some point in your life. Um, I was a graphic designer kind of advertising/branding consultant for 25 years, I’d started a business in that with a really good friend of mine named Paul a couple years out of university, so, so really, I tell people I’m kind of this ‘serial entrepreneur’, so in my entire lifetime I’ve only worked two years of my life for somebody else and the rest I’ve been sort of on my own. So, for 25 years Paul and I ran this business here in downtown Toronto and it was fantastic, we had a great 25 year run, but I shouldn’t even say it like that, it’s still going, Paul’s running it and it’s hugely successful, but it was a great 25 years with Paul. But you know, it was 25 years, and you guys will know even better than my generation, nobody does something for 25 years anymore, let alone, like does anyone do anything for 5 years anymore? I imagine all your peers are like “I started off in Med School, I went into jewelry making,” and it just kind of bounces and you discover your own thing and a lot of it is about translating skills and interests to other things and the particular occupation doesn’t seem to matter as much. But anyways, I did it for 25 years, kind of had that epiphany that it was time to do something else, it was time to get out from behind a desk, time to do something a little more physical. I wanted to do something in the local economy as well and I live in the neighbourhood, so I wanted to invest in the neighbourhood.
S: Do you ever feel like the West enders are going to come here and ruin it though? Do you get that vibe?
W: Yeah, it’s entirely possible, cities grow, and this is certainly a growing city, it’s entirely possible, but you can’t stop progress. And if for some reason it does sort of get to be too much and it gets ruined you know there will always be other neighbourhoods right, because neighbourhoods go through transitions and changes and so, you know, you know one of the nice things from a business perspective about the east end is the costs are lower. You don’t get the traffic, but the costs are lower, so you get people out here on this side kind of experimenting, taking risks, but they might not be able to afford to do on Queen West or Bloor West or somewhere around there. You know you hope they don’t ruin it because there’s a certain flavor that’s really appealing, but yeah, you’re never going to stop it. And to be honest, as a business owner, I may not like living through it, especially as I start to age even more, but from a business perspective it probably would work out really well.
S: How did you end up on ice cream?
W: So, I had that sort of desire to change careers. I wish I had a more complicated answer for you, but it just seemed like a hell of a lot of fun. But I didn’t have any experience in the food business of course—I called up a friend in Hamilton named Karen Bursen, she was a good friend of mine from university days and she’s involved in food, she’s a personal chef, she’s a food advocate, she works in food safety, she works in all kind of interesting, you know, farm to table stuff. We formalized our training in ice cream, we dabbled in it, and to be perfectly honest, ice cream isn’t that hard to learn, like Karen and I did a weekend course and then we were off and running.
S: And what do you want people to know about Wong’s Ice Cream?
W: I don’t know – it might be something better for you guys to sort of tell me as customers. You know, um, like I want them to know…but I’m not the determinant, right? It’s like I want them to know it’s great ice cream but I’m not the person that determines that it’s great ice cream. It feels like people really respond well to it and it you go by reviews, the reviews are fantastic, you know God bless, so lucky.
Andrew: And tell us the story behind the name. Why did you name it—?
W: A few reasons, my dad was in food in his life, my family story is sort of typical first generation immigrant story from China, the Guangzhou, Hong Kong region, and so my parents arrived in the country in the early 50s, so a while back. They were escaping Mao and the Cultural Revolution, that kind of stuff. And back in the homeland he was a mechanic and other kinds of trades and things like that, even though he was a young man at the time, but of course when he arrived here there were not a lot of opportunities, especially in the 50s and they landed in New Brunswick of all places, right, so you know, small, tiny town in New Brunswick, you know we were the only Chinese family. Like when my sister was born in New Brunswick the newspaper actually ran a story because she was the first Chinese baby ever born in this town. So my Dad did what a lot of Chinese immigrants did which was, “we can cook, and there’s this audience here that seems to love our bastardized, crappy Chinese food, so we’ll serve it to them, right?” So he started this kind of chop suey house thing and also it was burgers and fries and ham sandwiches. My father passed away about four or five years ago, so naming of the store had something to do with kind of recognizing my father’s influence in that area.
A: Is there a flavour that’s like the most popular flavour?
W: The Black Sesame and Salted Duck Egg, it launched us. Because that was the one that everyone wanted to take a picture of, right? And we all know it’s all Instagram these days. So BlogTO put it up, that whole Asian community, you know all those food bloggers that come from the Asian community, they all kind of went a little nuts for the Black Sesame Salted Duck Egg.
A: So what’s the most polarizing item on the menu? The one people love or hate.
W: And you don’t even have my full menu here, we probably do about 20 flavours in total, but it could be Wasabi Honey. Like Wasabi Honey is one of those ones where people try it and they either fall in love with it or they’re ready to spit it out. They’re like “let me try something else to kind of wash the wasabi out of my mouth…”
A: Do you have a favourite home-cooked meal? If it were your last day on earth, what would be your last meal?
W: It’s the fat black noodles. So I tell people if I was stranded on a desert island and I could only have one meal, that would be the meal. And I think some of it has to do with my dad. My dad used to whip up an amazing version of that, like every weekend, so I sort of grew up on it.
S: You’ve told us a little bit about your challenges and whatnot, and you read restaurant reviews, but how do you react to reviews in general? Like good reviews, bad reviews?
W: It’s hard, right? You have to have sort of a thick skin about it, because there are bad ones out there. You’re always eager to see the reviews but part of you sort of doesn’t want to. But like I said, I’ve been lucky. The vast majority of them are really great so I don’t get a ton of pain but sometimes when you do read a bad one, it hurts a little bit, right? Especially when they’re right.
S: Do you think there’s a sentiment in the public that where when a restaurant gets insanely successful or gets a lot of hype, do you think there’s a contingent of the public that sort of wants to be contrarian and sort of like…
W: Sure, yeah that’ll happen. I think we experience a little bit of it. I never asked for the hype, right? All the reviews that you see, all the commentary that’s been generated on social media or any of the media, has been organic in nature. It’s happened because it’s just what people have felt like saying about us. And then because the reviews were really good and there was a lot of hype because of the Black Sesame thing, towards the end of last season I started to see a lot more of “oh this place doesn’t live up to the hype”, “oh it’s way over hyped” and you know, I didn’t ask for that. Just, did you like it? That’s all that really matters. And you might feel that it’s over hyped but I didn’t do it.
A: What’s the best part of this job? What really keeps you going at this?
W: I’ve told other people this, I didn’t think it would be this good. But in the ice cream business almost no one is a bad customer. People come in here ad it’s smiles and laughs all day long. Because it’s ice cream, right? Nobody comes in here and is like really bitchy or just in a shit mood where they’re just like, they want to grind your gears because they had a bad day. They come in here and it’s like ‘hey, ice cream!” And literally in 3 years I’ve had less than 5 bad customers.
A: So you said you sought out help from your friends who were in the food business. When you were starting out what was the best piece of advice you got when you joined the restaurant industry, the food business?
W: Don’t fall in love with your own stuff.
A: Can you elaborate?
W: I think it has to do with keeping egos check. There are a couple of people in Hamilton that do really well. Do you know the Pokeh Bar started by Salar Madadi in the Farmer’s Market? Salar became a good friend of mine and he was actually the first person in Canada to open up a fully dedicated poke bar, and he’s been like voted Canada’s best poke for a couple of years running. He just has tremendous accolades for his food skills. But he always was like, “It comes and goes,” and “don’t fall in love with it. Just strive to always be better.” We had a great start but I try not to take any of it for granted, like I always try to provide the best customer service I can. We can have this fantastic Saturday where we have lineups out the door and the cash register is stuffed and you’re feeling good about all those sorts of things and people are really happy, but no matter who is walking in the door you have to take it like that was your only customer that day and you better keep earning it and you better make sure people keep speaking well of you. Keep generating your word of mouth, all sorts of things.
A: If someone wanted to open something in the food business, let’s say an ice cream shop, what would be the piece of advise that you’d give them?
W: Be ready to give up your summer and enjoy winters, because that’s your only free time. My entire life has shifted, I took January and February off, and we closed the shop for two months. So that was my only time off. Like it’s starting now and we’re ramping back up and I probably won’t really see a break until after Labour Day, and maybe even longer, maybe Thanksgiving. So, forget all the festivals that you used to do in the summer, forget all that stuff. Learn to like Australia and New Zealand if you can afford to travel there.
S: How has the neighbourhood, through your lens, changed over the years? Where do you see the neighbourhood going? Because it is changing pretty quickly. Is it sustainable in your opinion?
W: I think it is. I’m sort of towards Greenwood, so I’m sort of a Leslievillian. So I’ve seen a lot of the changes because Leslieville went through a lot of changes. And even towards the Coxwell/Gerrard area, where Godspeed is and a bunch of other places, that went through—that stretch of Gerrard is going through faster and more change than this end of it. I think it’s sustainable, and you know one of the reasons why I thought this was a good opportunity was the history of being Chinatown sort of plays into what I do. It connects to my history personally as well as the food history. I can tell from my customer base that’s coming in, it is. And if you probably talked to Soul Chocolate and Good Cheese and Andrea’s who’s been here for like 10 years now, I’m sure they’ll tell you the same thing. I get this hardcore Asian crowd but 60% of my customer base is non-Asian.
S: Thank you for your time Ed!
Wong's Ice Cream and Store
617 Gerrard St E