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This Chinese Restaurant Has Been a Staple of Toronto for Over 25 Years. Then Omicron Hit.

Throughout the pandemic, long-standing Southern Chinese restaurant Lai Wah Heen was hit by indoor closure after indoor closure. At some points, they even faced a 30 per cent hit to their revenue. During these gruelling months, they grew concerned about covering their rent and knew something had to change.

But, unlike other restaurants that were able to pivot onto the city’s sidewalks with makeshift patios, the restaurant on Chestnut St. remained empty with only a few visitors or delivery drivers popping in to grab food to-go.

Located on the second floor of the DoubleTree Hotel for the past 25 years, Lai Wah Heen had no option to pivot outdoors. “It was hard,” says owner Canson Tsang. “We went a long, long time without customers in the dining room. Our main selling point is fresh, hot dim sum with a view.”

Lai Wah Heen first opened its doors in the 90s as an innovative idea Tsang had to elevate Chinese food and share the mastery in the cuisine. At that time, Chinese food was often stigmatized and seen as little more than a cheap meal. “The whole idea was to show how our cooking is also a work of art that deserves to be recognized,” says Tsang.

It’s also why Tsang decided to put a lot of emphasis on his restaurant’s decor and seating arrangements. He hired a famous Chinese calligrapher to paint floor-to-ceiling paintings of auspicious Chinese characters. Plates, dishes, and teacups were all personalised with Lai Wah Heen’s emblem. The windows, also floor to ceiling, showcased views of the downtown core’s beautiful surroundings.  “We put a lot of time and energy into our dining room. The comfortable environment,” he says.

Twenty-something years later, in the midst of a global pandemic, their dining room was barren. “Losing that experience was really eye-opening for us,” Tsang says. 

Like many others, the restaurant looked for new ways to innovate. Over the last two years they came up with many ideas, including adding take-home meal kits for customers to make authentic Chinese food at home. After a while, they also launched Lai Wah Heen bone broth, a common healing remedy, customers could enjoy in the comfort of their own homes. 

With these pivots, targeted toward a younger audience and advertised exclusively on social media, Lai Wah Heen found not only a way to stay afloat, but also gain a new, younger customer base. “It taught us that it was important to innovate, and while we may have regulars, we need to keep engaging,” Tsang says. 

Lai Wah Heen also became more involved with communities, working with other restaurants to promote local while also giving back by partnering with Community Fridges Toronto, a “take what you need, leave what you can” network of fridges throughout the city. Customers could donate soups and bowls of rice to these fridges to help others. 

Then the summer of 2021 arrived and indoor dining was back in full swing. Tsang found himself slowly welcoming customers back and meeting new ones that had become aware of the restaurant during the closures.

Tsang attributes this awareness not only to their focus on social media, but how they decided to pivot. “We decided to use a more educational model––to share the history of the food or our cultural celebrations,” he says. “Those got a lot of shares and shows us that people just want to learn more.”

Just as things were getting back to “normal,” the restaurant took another huge hit. The Omicron variant began to take hold in late 2021 and another dark cloud loomed. In what should’ve been the leadup to their busiest season, the bad news came all at once. Ontario closed its doors once again to indoor dining, leaving Lai Wah Heen shuttered. 

“We were very disappointed due to the timing of the closure, right before Lunar New Year,” Tsang says. “The loss is significant because in a normal year, the revenue during the Lunar New Year will keep us going through the slow winter.”

Throughout January, Tsang tried to pivot again, despite feeling understandably fatigued and discouraged. He designed a Lunar New Year takeout menu to ensure families could still celebrate at home in case restaurants remained closed. He also decided to scale down the menu a bit, limiting their bone broth soups to focus more on how they could bring a special experience to the Lunar New Year.“Sometimes we pivot, but it costs money. We also need to learn to scale down,” he says.

Thankfully the end of January 2022 brought a slow re-opening to restaurants, with a great showing for Lunar New Year. “I am happy we decided to take the time off to engage even more people and advertise our new year menu. I think that makes a big difference,” he says. 

Now, Tsang is hoping the pandemic is closer to a manageable place in order to keep his restaurant––which has been a part of the city for more than 25 years––alive. What does he suggest to other business owners who are struggling or just starting up during these difficult times? To build resilience and always try new things, even if they feel unfamiliar. 

“I feel more confident it is going to be over soon this time. You can keep building that up,” Tsang says. “You’ll continue to have thoughts like, ‘Will small businesses survive?’ But that’s something you have to overcome.” 

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