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First strike, being in the food industry. Second strike being, new.

Isn't it weird that paying rent and having expenses isn't enough to qualify for help? Matt Nguyen from Tâm Restaurant thinks so.

Imagine being a business that is in very much in need of government help, but having to wait months for that same help because you don't satisfy their requirements. Now, imagine being outcast because you're a new business, and you don't have the years of records needed to get help. Matt Nguyen from Tâm Restaurant knows all too well that government help is conditional, and it hasn't been easy having to constantly check if they now meet requirements. We talk about the restaurant beginnings, how unique their situation is having just opened before everything happened, and how he's outspoken when it comes to how the government is dealing with it all. Oh, and their bánh mì rocks too.

Long time no see man, thanks for taking the time out. Let’s start with your history. I know you’re a new business, so tell the people a bit about yourselves.

So Tam is a family operation. My mom was doing private catering stuff on her own, my brother went to culinary school and he was working over at Morton's Steakhouse, and I’m a barista. We all had a background in food and things came together at the same time. We're really familiar with the neighborhood. So it kind of seemed like with all of the direct pieces together that it was good timing. 

 

The whole idea was we wanted to combine everything that we did and create a business model off of that. When it comes to Vietnamese food, you see, like, there's, I mean, you seem pretty into Vietnamese food. There's a divide as there are traditional pho joints, and then there's new school places. So we kind of wanted to see if we can bridge that gap. We want to have a business model that old Vietnamese people can come and kind of be happy, but then for people who are new to Vietnamese food, they can come in and it's not going to be too foreign.

 

Sorry brother, but I want to take you back to last March when it all exploded. You opened pretty soon before everything was forced to shut down right?

Ya we had our soft opening in January, and then in like, late February, we had our grand opening, mid to late February. So really, when things went down, we'd only been in full swing for like a month.

How was having everything fall on you a month into the food game?

It sucked, because we put a lot into trying to hit the ground running. Like we got a whole bunch of influencers in here. We just had marketing schemes and stuff that we invested our time and money into. We were seeing the momentum, you're seeing things pick up and then it's gone. And it's not like when the pandemics over, we can pick up where we left off. It's gone. It's crazy, because nobody knew what was happening. So when it happened, everybody was just kind of talking to each other. I mean, like, what do you think's gonna happen? Like, what do we do? And nobody had any idea? I think some people might have had some foresight and decided to just 180 their business model right away. We were still asking what do we do? Do we take this as an opportunity to have some more extensive training with our staff? That's when we thought it was gonna be like a week or two.

Hindsight doesn't really help in this situation. It’s not like looking at how things have gone in the past few months is even really going to help with how things are gonna go in the next six months. Everything's new, and it's hitting us as it comes. So yeah, we ended up deciding that we couldn't afford staff and it was just going to be the family. Things were really slow for a little bit and we scaled back our hours. I think now some people have adjusted to the life and they kind of know how to be a little bit more careful with ordering food and stuff like that. When things hit and everybody was just like, “alright, time to quarantine and stay home.” Sales dipped. There were days where I came in and sat with a book and two or three customers would come in. People don't realize that we don’t prep to have two or three customers. If you want to be able to serve people fast, you've got to prep in advance. If people don't come that's a lot of food waste.

It sounds like you’re trying to figure it out every day as it comes. As simple as you having a business and constantly trying to think of new things to keep going.

We’re constantly looking around seeing what other restaurants are doing; see if anybody's caught on to something that works. We know some places that have turned into a little bodega someplace, some that have committed to delivery, some doing pop up kind of stuff. Yeah, I think us being a new business makes it even harder as we don't really have a brand to fall back on yet. Anything we do is a completely new endeavor. There's no name recognition. So, yeah, it's almost like you got to try to think of get-rich-quick schemes for the food.

You've been outspoken when it comes to how the government has approached helping businesses. You’re a business in the food industry, but also a new business altogether. For some relief programs they require records from last year when your business wasn’t alive yet. What are your thoughts?

I mean, first of all, they're mad slow. The government's so slow, and there's always this kind of air about them like they know what they're doing.Every time they announce a new policy I feel like it's just so poorly thought out for the amount of money that goes into what they're doing. There are professionals that are supposed to be getting paid to do this stuff, you think they'd be a little more thorough with it. I have a degree in Public Policy, too, so I'm seeing it from a pretty interesting standpoint, where I'm looking at this stuff, and it's like, are you serious? You can see right off the bat that your criteria doesn't work for, you know, Group A or group B. I don't want to be this cynical about it but I can’t help it. I feel like, I'm from the government's perspective, they knew who they were leaving out. They’re hoping that things would blow over soon enough for them to not have to throw money at people. I hate to think about it like that.

Or they thought we wouldn’t be here right now. It would be a month long thing and we could go back to normal.

You know CEBA? The Canada Emergency Business Account which is that huge business loan? We knew immediately we didn't qualify because we needed old payroll data we didn’t have. As time went by they made it more lenient. You still need old payroll data, but a bit less. Eventually I checked back and found out that criteria have been amended so that we could finally qualify, and even then you couldn't get it unless you could prove that you had expenses. If you've already been operating and you're already a feasible business they don't need that evidence. But if you're new, then they're going to be like, we need you to prove that you actually need to spend money. If you're paying rent and you have enough expenses you should absolutely qualify. But they don't make it easy.

This is a big question, but what do you wish the government implemented?

I mean, this might be a little controversial, but when I look at the state of things economically, we've got so many businesses that are losing money, but the money doesn't just disappear. There's still people that are making their money or profiting off of the state of the world. I do kind of wish the government was able to pinpoint these areas where money is still being made and think of some kind of mechanism to even the playing field. We know certain people still have money and a lot of people don't. So how do we make it so that the people who don't have money are still able to survive? Without, of course, destroying the livelihoods of the people who are already making money. I'm not going to pretend like I know the exact solution. But the point is, again, we have enough professionals that are getting paid to do this, that they should be able to work something out.

Winter is here. Now what?

Hold on for your damn life. That's pretty much it. We still have a few things up our sleeve in terms of schemes that we can try. But I've come to a point where I've accepted that anything that we do that’s successful is going to net us another $50, at most a couple $100 a day. That's at most how much it'll help us. The real relief for us comes from trying to stay on top of all the assistance we can get from the government or grant money, business loans, etc. It’s like we’re playing a game. Our revenue isn’t coming from customers anymore, it’s coming from the government.

Could you shine a light in regards to how it’s been during this time having to permanently be in the food industry trenches? What’s it been like?

If there's anything I wish people could take from this, it's that, yeah, there's humanity behind the food industry. All of this food service, every plate that's put in front of you, every business that you enter. It's run by humans. Not just the owners, but the employees. And the supply chain, you know, every single part of this business, there's humans that are managing their own ecosystem. When shit hits the fan like this? Yeah, there's a lot of humanity that's on the line. But I mean, beyond the closures, the people behind the businesses that closed but also the people behind the businesses that are open, the circumstances, they leak into people's personal lives, their relationships, just their ability to sleep at night.

How can people help?

Everybody has been saying support your small businesses, shop local and stuff like that, especially with the holidays coming. But beyond that, keep writing to your politicians. Write to your MP and your MPP. Let them know that you value your small businesses and they're not getting the help. Write to your representatives. The government needs to feel pressure and they need to feel like they're held accountable.

The floor is yours boss. Lead us out with any final thoughts.

Everything really is kind of crazy right now. I think at the end of the day, it all does just come down to there's people behind everything. There's humanity behind all this all the time. So everything that you do, all the interactions that you have, just remember that this whole pandemic hasn't been kind to most people. Be more empathetic to the businesses that you're trying to support. If you're not exactly happy with the service or whatever, just understand that there's probably a reason why. Be kind.

All images are from @tam.restaurant

You can check out Tâm Vietnamese Restaurant here

or

visit (for pickup right now) at 369 Keele St.