WOK’ING ON SUNSHINE

In Business & Technology /

By Amit Shilton

For the past three years, 3 Gerrard St. E has been where businesses go to die.

The property has been cursed since the famous Rock & Roll Diner — a favourite spot where students flocked for cheap breakfasts and cheaper beer — closed in 2005.

First Dragon Sushi moved, but that went belly up in less than a year. Then Café Gabbana took its place, and it closed down within five months.

But Wok n’ Roll restaurant has so far avoided the curse of the Rock & Roll Diner, with owner James Zhu, 50, recently celebrating his Chinese restaurant’s one-year anniversary. Since he has opened, Zhu estimates about 60 per cent of his business has come from Ryerson’s students, staff and faculty.

“The restaurant industry is a tough business,” Zhu said, as he watched students walking by through the glass windows of Wok n’ Roll. “But as long as you know what you’re doing … then you can handle it.”

Zhu, who has been working in Toronto’s food industry since 1993, credits his restaurant’s surprising success on the research he conducted before opening Wok n’ Roll.

He said he has eaten at every restaurant in the area and talked with both customers and restaurant owners, trying to establish the community’s demographic. Zhu remembers when he sat in the Hub watching students eat Manchu Wok. “Manchu Wok charges extra for extra items. Pretty soon it adds up to $10. But not us.”

Learning and catering to your demographic is the key to survival in the restaurant industry, said Richard Wade, a hospitality and tourism management professor at Ryerson.

Wade, whose parents owned a restaurant, said many restaurants fail because they don’t do their research.

“You should have known that before you even sign the lease,” he said. “Students are very sensitive about how much they can pay for lunch,” Zhu said. “The two before us charged way too much.”

So far, it seems students looking for a cheap and quick Chinese fix like what they see — and eat.

Leonardo Jimenez, a fourth-year electrical engineering student, said that the restaurant’s affordable prices and location are major factors when deciding where he goes to eat lunch.

And while Oshani Pathirane, Jimenez’s classmate, goes to Wok n’ Roll often, she realizes it isn’t the healthiest choice.

“You get that guilty feeling,” she said of the artery-clogging Chinese food. “Tomorrow I’ll eat broccoli.”

Customers at Wok n’ Roll have several options using what Zhu calls a “make it your own combo.”

Diners pay a fl at rate for a Styrofoam container, then fi ll it up with food from a buffet table.

All the traditional quasi-Chinese favourites are available, including noodles, sweet and sour chicken balls and green beans.

A small container goes for $5.29 while a large one costs $6.49. Pathirane said her trick to eating at the restaurant’s buffet includes creating a formula to get as much as possible into the Styrofoam containers.

The restaurant’s concept, where students serve themselves, saves on both labour costs and effi ciency, said Zhu, who works the cash register with his wife.

This way, Zhu is able to afford to pay the 10-year lease on his 3,500 square-foot property, which costs him around $60 per square foot.

“I like to deal with people,” he said, adding he has felt younger and more energetic now that he has to deal with students on a daily basis.

Since he fi rst started opening restaurants, Zhu has owned everything from a bar to a café.

But it has been his four buffet-style Chinese food restaurants that have been the most successful.

His three other restaurants, the fi rst of which opened in 1998, can all be found in GTA-area mall food courts. Two of them have been so profi table that he has already sold them off.

“I haven’t seen anything like this here,” Zhu said, referring to the selfserve concept of Wok n’ Roll.

Ken Tsang, the owner of Lee Town Chinese Restaurant, a competing dining establishment on Yonge Street, said he didn’t feel threatened when Wok n’ Roll opened.

Tsang’s restaurant has been around for 15 years, and he said that although both restaurants serve Chinese food, the style is completely different.

As for Zhu, who immigrated to Toronto in 1989, he believes he has found his recipe for success in Wok n’ Roll’s self-serve buffet, convenient for busy students and local workers on their lunch hour.

And while he has already received offers to sell the restaurant, Zhu is waiting for better offers.

“As long as I’m profitable, I’ll stay here forever,” he said.

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