Tap Phong may look like your standard Chinatown supply shop with its cluttered aisles, fluorescent lighting, and the stock cluster of paper Chinese lanterns hanging from its ceilings.
But those with any insight into the inner workings of Toronto’s restaurant scene know that from Tap Phong’s stacked shelves of rice cookers and cutlery have sprung some of the most well-known dining establishments in the city.From chefs like Jen Agg, Susur Lee, and Grant Van Gamaren, to Toronto’s iteration of Momofuku, restaurateurs and celebrities alike have flocked to this Chinatown stalwart since 1989 to gear up their kitchens with every tool imagineable.
Ask Lili Tran, the active spokesperson for her family’s business, and she’ll tell you how chef Anthony Walsh of the O&B group still drops by the store from time to time, or how she once saw actress Milla Jovovich squeezing through the store aisles, perusing global knives.“You’re in Chinatown, you’re going to get a lot of characters,” she said.
When Tran’s family first immigrated from Vietnam to Canada in 1979, they settled in Guelph first before eventually landing in Toronto, where—like so many Vietnamese and Chinese newcomers at the time—the family made a living in Chinatown through odd jobs like seamstressing.It was only in 1984 that Lili’s mother Dung Tran, her aunt De, and their husbands, decided to open up a supply store at 332 Spadina Ave., now an Ajisen Ramen.
The store was nothing like the booming business it is today. Back then, it was less restaurant equipment and more the usual wares of any Asian business: hardware in the back and the standard mix of faux Ming vases and China bowls in the front.
After five years of non-stop work, the Tran family eventually moved to an old slaughterhouse more than twice the size, where it’s operated since 1989 carrying utensils of every size, champagne fountains, chefs’ aprons—the list goes on.
Today, the name Tap Phong is synonymous with Toronto’s restaurant industry.
According to Aunt De, the spunky head of acquisitions, there’s at least 40,000 items in the store right now. Travelling abroad almost every year to scope out the trade expos in Asia, it’s largely her discerning taste that’s shaped Tap Phong’s eclectic stock.
She says practicality take precedence here, but also admits she has a penchant for the “old school stuff”, like the china plates which, once deemed passé, have made a comeback with the burgeoning number of modern Asian snack bars in Chinatown.
Tap Phong also carries their own line of products, like a series of acacia wood kitchen ware and the Royal Classic line of plates.
With a highly competitive restaurant industry, however, the Trans are careful to carry stock that reflects the times.
Japanese taiyaki grills and Chinese waffle ball machines are on main display, costing $499.99 and $299.99 respectively. Considering both items are arguably the hottest food trends right now, it’s an investment entrepreneurs might be happy to make.
Lili also tells me that their clientele is changing, with meal delivery services now making up a sizeable part of their business.
Unsurprisingly, some of Tap Phong’s top-selling items right now are the Bagastro biodegradable and paper containers—a reflection of the restaurant industry consciously moving away from single-use plastics.
But undoubtedly the biggest appeal of Tap Phong is its family-run, face-to-face service. While online supply shops are abundant (sometimes offering cheaper deals), nothing trumps knowing the Tran family by a first-name basis.
Walk into the store and chances are you’ll find Aunt De at her usual spot behind the right side counter, beneath the display of forks. To the left, you’ll likely find Dung manning the cashier near aisle one.
Nearly buried in the shelves of products, you’ll probably spot Aunt De’s daughter arranging the stock, and Lili’s husband pushing a trolley alongside non-relative workers. Fun fact: Lili and her husband met at Tap Phong.
Meanwhile, Lili’s older cousin Andrew handles the social media and organizes their online catalogue in their upstairs office above the store. Offsite, Lili’s father oversees their warehouse on Geary Ave., while her uncle does the book keeping.
Visit Tap Phong any day and you’ll likely hear a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin, Teochew, English, and Vietnamese.
And as you weave through the aisles filled with stock of all shapes and sizes, rubbing shoulders with big-name chefs and wok-shopping grandmothers alike, you’ll get the feeling that there’s an essence of Toronto here that can’t be bought.