The restaurant industry is cut throat and one that is constantly evolving, which requires drive, creativity and an attention to detail and consistency to stay alive. For Colin Li, owner of Hong Shing, one of Toronto's most well-known Chinese restaurants, this challenge is one that he loves and his ability to innovate has led him to great heights. Since taking over the restaurant from his parents 8 years ago, Colin has built Hong Shing, a 25 year-old institution, not only into a notable location for Chinese eats but also a locally recognized brand and we got the chance to sit down with him to learn about his journey. Read through the interview below!
Hey Colin, thanks for having us into the restaurant. You took over from your parents 8 years ago and the growth has been incredible since then. Can you speak more about that journey?
The pleasure's all mine. It's definitely been a pretty wild 8 years and I'm really proud of that growth but the real accomplishment is that Hong Shing has been around for 25 years. When a restaurant, especially a Chinese restaurant which do not often stick around this long, gets to that point, it becomes an institution and being a part of that has been incredible.
I came into this with no formal restaurant training but have been working hard over the last 8 years to learn every aspect of the business, from dishwashing and serving to everything in the kitchen and bar, to ensure that I can run a tight ship and turn Hong Shing, not only into a known restaurant, but also a well rounded brand.
Can you speak more about Hong Shing the brand and what that entails?
Yes, of course. Once I took over the restaurant, I started doing some research and came to understand that people really only think about restaurants at 11am and 6pm, right before meals when they're hungry. This means that for all of those other hours during the day, I needed to find a way to be top of mind. This is where stuff like the merch or the basketball team sponsorship comes in.
I've always been into fashion and the merch idea first come from just wanting to re-invent my staff's uniform to be more casual, comfortable and approachable and it has become a really fun project that I work on with my team. For the basketball team, we sponsor a youth girls team which has been an awesome opportunity to get more involved in the basketball community and watch these girls grow into great basketball players and human beings.
Wanting to uplift youth seems to be something you are passionate about.
It definitely is, especially with young chefs. In the Chinese restaurant industry, almost all of the chefs are over 50 years old. Traditionally, Chinese restaurants only hire based on experience, like how many years do you have behind a wok, so no young chefs are getting into Chinese restaurants and if they do, older Chinese chefs are not normally so welcoming so young chefs out of culinary school choose to go to fine dining restaurants or other European cuisines. I'm really trying to break down those barriers and support young chefs in the Chinese community. Many of them are more experienced in the kitchen than I am but I believe I have a lot to teach them about running a successful restaurant.
It's great that you take on that mentality to share your knowledge. Did you learn that from your time as a kid growing up in your parents restaurants?
Not at all actually. My parents never used to speak with other Chinese restaurant owners. They would undercut each other and just tell me to focus on myself. There wasn't anything wrong with them. There was just a real sense of competition in the Chinese restaurant community back then. I wanted to change that once I took over so the first thing I did was put all Chinese chefs that I knew, young and old, into a group chat to exchange ideas and learn from each other. We can only grow so far on our own. Building this together is what will really take things to the next level. I always tell my managers "what's the point of being in first class if your friends aren't with you?"
We couldn't agree more. What is something you did learn from your parents that you think was very valuable?
There's a saying that my parents used to say which was "You need to learn how to be a human before you can run a business." If you know how to be a human that is kind hearted and respects others, then you will run a good business.
That's a good one. Before we let you go, what are some things for the restaurant that you're looking forward to?
There's a lot. Lunar new year is going to be big this year. I've spent a lot of time designing a menu that draws inspiration from my childhood which I think our customers will love. I'm also working a lot more on our retail business, so creating products for grocery stores like pre-made frozen meals and spices and sauces. As we continue to expand, that will become a huge part of our business.
Lastly, we're also about to completely redo the bar area which is going to be great. It will allow us to expand our drink offerings, such as focusing on baijiu cocktails, and make for a better space to throw events this year. I want to make the space one that different creatives and groups from the community can host their own events here. I think that will be a great way to expose new people to Hong Shing but also continue to uplift other creatives which I'm passionate about. So stay tuned for that!
Make sure to check out Hong Shing at 195 Dundas St. West in Toronto and check out their Instagram for updates on the restaurant and HS brand and keep it locked to Pier Five for more interviews with entrepreneurs and creatives just like this!