Culture

Inside the fullest and most beloved restaurant supply store in Toronto

How 3 generations of family made Tap Phong the institution it is today.

How 3 generations of family made Tap Phong the institution it is today

(All Photography: Kyle Richmond)

Tap Phong, the restaurant supply store-with-it-all in the heart of Toronto's Chinatown, is a pleasing paradox; it's both deft at adapting while remaining, somehow, an unchanging presence in an ever-shifting city. For the last 30 years, three generations of the Tran family have operated this outfit at 360 Spadina Avenue.

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)
(Photography: Kyle Richmond)

The bustling energy of Spadina filters into the shop; it's a bit chaotic and slightly overwhelming inside. Customers and staff of all ages carefully squeeze past each other as they move from one stuffed-to-the-seams section to the next. It's hard to rush through the store but this would-be restriction has an unexpected upside; the slow crawl leaves time to fully appreciate the sheer variety of offerings available. The far left aisle at the back of the store is dedicated to traditional Asian cookware — a selection of earthenware pots, single- and double-handled, with various glaze finishes, some meant for herbal soups and others for steaming, and tall stacks of bamboo steamers in every size. As decorative as these items may look at first glance, anyone who uses them knows they are, in fact, real-deal workhorse vessels (most made in the same form and with traditional materials unchanged for generations).

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)
(Photography: Kyle Richmond)

Just a few aisles over, past the corn-based eco-containers and craft cocktail glasses, you'll find state-of-the-art electric rice cookers and immersion circulators. It's a whole world of both old and new, colliding and coexisting on Tap Phong's overflowing shelves, and it's hard not to draw parallels to the multiple generations running the business.

Visit Tap Phong these days and you'll likely find the shop's unofficial spokespersons, cousins Lili and Andrew, in their element. As the two younger Trans share stories about their family shop's history with us, they simultaneously help customers looking for metal skewers, field questions about cooling racks, and defer to their mothers, Anna and De, for quotes on larger orders.

The Tran family emigrated from Vietnam to Canada in 1979. Lili's parents, John and Anna, and Andrew's parents Danny (John's brother) and De, first opened the shop — just down the street from its current location — in 1984. That Tap Phong operated primarily as an Asian housewares shop, where one might find Chinese ceramics, Kitchen God statues and altars, and even, at one point, traditionally salted duck eggs, coated in ash. A few years later, the family store moved to its current, larger location, and by popular demand, gradually changed its wares to restaurant supplies. It's eventually become a go-to spot for the city's restaurant industry and shoppers-in-the-know alike.

Cousins Andrew Tran and Lili Tran (Photography: Kyle Richmond)
De Tran with her son, Andrew Tran (Photography: Kyle Richmond)
Lili Tran with her mother, Anna Tran (Photography: Kyle Richmond)

It's also remained a family affair throughout. Lili's grandfather manned the till, while her grandmother ("the family bedrock," says Lili) took care of the kids while the adults worked. The hours were long. "It was seven days a week, from nine to nine every day," recalls Lili. "There was no break. For 20-some-odd years they were [on] that work schedule, then maybe a week [of] vacation, if that. It wasn't until we reached our college years when they started to take regular days off."

As with many instances of one generation working in order to better the opportunities for the next, the primary focus for the Tran children was firmly set on receiving an education. Lili studied at the University of Toronto, earning a bachelor of arts in History and graduating with honours, before going on to George Brown for a certificate in design. Andrew graduated from York University's Schulich School of Business with a bachelor of business administration. Lili and Andrew's diverse skill sets were put to good use when it came time to return to the family business. The younger generation introduced their elders to Tap Phong's social media accounts ("Instagram? They know it exists, but they don't really understand the concept," admits Andrew), and they created a website to better help customers navigate its vast product categories. Next came a major overhaul which replaced the old cash tills with a new digital POS system.

Even with the thrill of the new, Lili and Andrew acknowledge that success can't be determined by SEO algorithms and profit margin calculations alone. Through watching their parents at work, they've learned that the continued success of the shop is due in large part to the actual experience of shopping there.

The Tap Phong experience is made of shouted greetings, face-to-face interaction and, if you're lucky, some old-school, good-natured haggling and friendly ribbing. It's a finely honed skill, that back-and-forth, where the customer and the shop owners both feel like they've benefitted from the transaction."If I'm dealing with a person of my parent's generation and they're [trying to strike a deal], and I say, 'I'm sorry, that's what the price says,' my mom might say, 'It's OK, let me handle it,'" says Lili. "It still ends up [to be] the same profit margin, but somehow, the way she communicates, that makes all the difference. At the end of the day, their method of doing things, there's a reason why it works."

That give-and-take communication also helps explain the sheer variety of items that Tap Phong stocks, many of which are highly specialized kitchen tools you'd be hard pressed to find at most mainstream department stores.

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)

"One thing my mom mentioned to me is, when you're looking for items for the store, don't look for items that just speak to you," says Andrew. "You have to listen to what your clients are looking for. If they have an issue, you have to find a product to solve that issue … we're always thinking about what other people might need."

"People always ask, 'How do you control the inventory? There's so much here!'" Lili adds. "It's a collaborative effort; the creative part is that our parents are really talking to their clients, listening to what people are asking for. When customers come to the store, they know Andrew and I... I pass on [the request] when a customer mentions they're, for example, looking for a Yarai for cocktails." It's why today you'll find those cultish, diamond-cut Yarai mixing glasses, beloved by the city's top mixologists, available alongside porcelain sake cups, steel Vietnamese coffee filters and yellow, cafeteria-style juice tumblers. That's several thirst problems, solved.

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)

Another part of the Tap Phong experience? It's invariably busy. It's not uncommon to see neighbourhood cooks waiting for the doors to open, ducking in before their shifts to replace peelers and saucing spoons, or curious, late-night tourists sightseeing their way through the aisles after dinner in Chinatown. It's easy to imagine that life in the shop might be all-consuming — it must be, in many ways. But as Lili and Andrew share, it's also just as easy to find room to appreciate the small moments and take in some family wisdom. There's even room, it turns out, to find love.

"Well, I married a chef," Lili says with a laugh. "We met here. A lot of my major life decisions have revolved around the store." Lili met her now-husband Richard while he was sourcing out items for work. When she finally realized he was asking her out, she grabbed the nearest item — a stack of brown paper bags — to take down his phone number and waited a week before calling. Richard is now happily part of the Tap Phong family, spending part of his time working alongside Lili in the shop.

There's a quiet pleasure to be found in discovering something new. And in the case of Tap Phong, with its ever-changing, eclectic range of products and bustling vibe, that feeling is persistent and contagious. "It's great when random customers come through — when they've been walking past the store for years and they finally come in," Andrew says. "They're like, 'I've walked past this store forever and can't believe I'm here. It's like an Asian Walmart!'"

Even the topography of the shop itself keeps visitors on their toes. The 'new' room, a not-so-recent, yet still somewhat hidden addition on the shop's north side, houses all sorts of commercial equipment from enormous stock pots and bus bins to fry pans of every shape and size. "Even if they're longtime customers, they might ask 'Do you have this?' and I'll say 'Oh, it's in the other room,' and they're shocked," says Lili. "'There's another room to this?!' I love that it's like Narnia for them."

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)

Through all the shop additions and changes over the years, the younger Trans have come to understand that Tap Phong's success relies just as much on the older generation being open to their "in with the new" mentality as it does on their own awareness of what works with the old. That includes bits of family wisdom, markers that will guide and inform how the younger generation carry themselves as they continue the family business. "Our grandmother instilled in us the value of working hard and supporting each other," Lili shares. "My mom taught me to show people kindness; you never know what someone is going through." Andrew adds, "I remember [my mom] telling me at a very young age, 'If you're going to do something, make sure you see it through … make sure you give it your all.'"

(Photography: Kyle Richmond)
Members of the Tran family, L-R: Andrew, Lili, Anna, De, Jessica, Kevin (Photography: Kyle Richmond)

When you spend any amount of time here, you're witnessing a slice of Toronto that you won't find anywhere else; a visit here is a real-life embodiment of the city's unique blend of communities. The staff of extended family members (which also includes Andrew's siblings, Jessica and Kevin) and longtime employees speak to each other in a mixture of English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. The customers that come through include university students on a budget kitting out their first kitchen away from home, prominent restaurateurs, set designers and prop stylists, and local, no-nonsense grandmas that won't think twice about moving well-known actors along if they're dawdling. There really is never a dull moment.

"This area, it's a constant evolution," says Lili. "When we were kids, we would go to Switzer's Deli [on Spadina, which closed in 1991] for fries. And when [iconic dim sum restaurant] Bright Pearl's dragon statue came down, that was something. Then there were a lot of Chinese grocery stores and Hong Kong cafes … then, Japanese, Korean and Mediterranean places, and now there's new young business owners opening bubble tea shops. That's quite exciting to see."

"Meanwhile, more or less the same people have been [at the shop] the whole time," she continues. "Whether you choose to shop with us on the regular, or if you were a little kid and moved away and came back, you're like, 'Oh, Grandma's still here, Lili's here and Andrew's here.' There's a sense of the familiar... Like when I go to New York there's Katz's Deli, still there, probably with the same linoleum, same guy — it's just great, it's comforting. The good things, most of them, stay the same."

Even though Tap Phong has been around for three decades and is beloved as a Toronto institution by its chefs and savvy shoppers alike, when asked, Lili still doesn't see the shop as being influential or popular. "It's nice to be recognized, of course, but we're not reinventing the wheel," she says, "We're catering to customers with our special touch – we want you to be happy when you're here. Shopping should be fun!"

You might say this family-owned Chinatown institution represents how the city would ideally like to see itself: open, curious, well-travelled and well-fed. It offers those of us that visit it, an opportunity to see just how well the old and new can exist together, that there is a common ground to be found in our aim to feed ourselves and those around us.


Flo Leung is a Toronto illustrator and noodle lover. You can find her work at hungryeyesstudio.com and @hungryeyesstudio.

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