For the love of good food

Thompson Trans bottles Vietnamese sauces, rents out kitchen space, and teaches cooking classes. | Photos by LOF Photography

Wooden Boat Co. owner juggles multiple businesses

Running a takeout restaurant during the pandemic sparked career highs and lows for Thompson Tran. “You know how glorious that (COVID) was for me? It reset the clock,” the Kitchener, Ontario entrepreneur recalls. His Wooden Boat Co. operation was the most profitable it had ever been.

With people in lockdowns or afraid to venture out, he changed his business model to pre-order only, Thursday through Saturday.
Business doubled despite being open only half as much. His offerings of Vietnamese sandwiches, fried chicken, and wood-fired pizzas regularly sold out. Better cash flow allowed him to buy more equipment and pay down debts. Still, he realized the good times would be fleeting. “I knew, from the moment I started making money, that this was not forever. I knew for a fact that once things got regular again, business would go down, and it did.”

His staff found new jobs, ingredient prices soared, and Tran knew he needed a change. After his second surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, his left hand did not recover as well as his right hand had. “The margins were still there, but the physical aspects were too challenging. I realized I couldn’t do this anymore.” Those challenges, plus fatigue from working 60-hour weeks, led him to shutter his restaurant this past summer.

Tran is far from done with the food industry. He juggles multiple businesses and looks forward to a future as diverse as his careers have been. Tran’s parents are Vietnamese. His father, who fought for the losing side in the Vietnam war, was imprisoned there for three years in the mid-1970s. The Tran family came to Edmonton, Canada, in 1979, where Thompson was born. They lived there for four years before settling in Langley, British Columbia, where Thompson was raised.

Thompson Tran does catering and pop-up cooking events in several communities. | Photo by LOF Photography

Like many immigrants, the family worked long hours at their tailoring business. Thompson learned to do serging — the process of seaming or stitching the edges of a fabric to prevent it from unraveling — and hemming at a young age. Those skills later came in handy when he was the only male teacher who could teach culinary arts and sewing in home economics classes.

Other jobs connected him to food. From age seven, he worked on farms in the summer, picking strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. He also helped to bale hay and perform other menial tasks. In 1995, the Tran family became co-owners of a Vietnamese restaurant. Thompson, age 14, washed dishes, bussed tables, and did some food prep five hours at a time, three days a week. “I loved it, he said. “It was really interesting.”

He couldn’t get as much exposure to the restaurant business as he wanted, however. His mother discouraged him from being in the kitchen, saying that was “not a place for a boy.” “At most, she would let me pick herbs.”

The family, not wanting to charge customers too much, didn’t understand margins. The restaurant was sold two years later.
Another passion, playing classical guitar, would influence his first career path. That led him to study music performance at university. Tran got more hospitality industry experience while studying at the University of British Colum- bia. He worked at a campus bagel shop, held supervisory roles, and was a cook at an arts club lounge.

Subsequent studies for a teaching degree taught him how to juggle multiple roles. He taught private music lessons. “I was teaching, and cooking and studying at the same time.” He also played guitar and keyboards and sang in the contemporary rock band Splitting Adam. The group released several recordings and won a Grammy nomination in 2010 before disbanding later that year.

Some of the band’s songs were used in a video game and NBC made-for-TV movies. Tran still gets royalty cheques. He started teaching at the 3,400-student New Westminster Secondary, B.C.’s second-largest high school. When the department head took a leave, Tran was called to co-lead the program with a colleague. That role was a less than pleasant experience. “It destroyed me,” he said. “Administrative work was so heavy.”

After that difficult year, he and his wife went on a 6.5-month world tour. While enjoying tapas at a pub in Grenada, Spain, he thought, “This (food preparation) is what I should be doing.” Returning to Canada, he switched to supply teaching plus cooking. “I was more passionate about food than I was about music.”

“It’s in my blood. Every single member of my family are entrepreneurs.”

— Thompson Tran

He was able to teach students culinary skills in home economics classes. But he knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur. “It’s in my blood. Every single member of my family are entrepreneurs.” In 2014, he started The Wooden Boat Food Company as a catering firm in a commercial kitchen. See- ing other people making products and selling to retailers, he searched for a unique selling proposition. He realized that stores didn’t have Vietnamese sauces and discovered his niche. And he made an unusual barter along the way.

A friend who is an Asian Elvis impersonator and graphic designer produced the Wooden Boat logo and packaging design. Tran provided guitar lessons in exchange. Tran tested 10 versions of what would become Nuoc Cham sauce — the name translates as water dipping — with focus groups. Everyone picked the same formula as their favorite. Nuoc Cham is popular with second-generation South-East Asians. But Tran understood that he needed to target North American-born consumers. “I knew that none of the people in my life would ever buy it.”

Thompson Tran with pickup truck | Photo by LOF Photography

The business was difficult in the early going. Tran didn’t pay himself for five years. Catering income paid for sauce packaging and inventory but not living expenses. Stores that bought the sauce were often late in paying. “My wife (a public health nurse) floated us,” he said. Educating consumers and doing marketing proved to be expensive. Retailers were receptive to putting Wooden Boat sauces on their shelves. That was only part of the battle.

“How do you get it off (shelves) into the hands of consumers?” Sampling was key to getting people to buy. Eight years later, two types of sauces are sold in 250 retail stores in B.C., Alberta, and Ontario. Most of these are independent. Sobeys, Canada’s second-largest supermarket chain, stocks Nuoc Cham in some of its stores. Tran still makes some products in B.C. and is considering working with a co-packer in that province. He did the paperwork to export to the U.S. But after starting a rentable commercial kitchen business and sharing his space, the details of the original plan were no longer valid.

U.S. sales could still develop. He is in talks with a US co-packer who has a buyer in Boston that wants to distribute Nuoc Cham. The product “is exactly where Sriracha (sauce) was 30 years ago (in terms of public acceptance).” It will take another ten years for Nuoc Cham to become a household name, he predicted.

He has resisted offers to private label his sauces for retail chains. Tran doesn’t want to give up the opportunity to promote his brand. Significantly ramping up volumes would also force him to invest in a new bottling line as well. “Profit and loss are really hard to control when you’re growing (rapidly),” he said. “Sometimes it’s better not to grow a lot.”

A few years after starting Wooden Boat, Tran moved to Kitchener with his wife and two children. They moved to develop a bigger market for his Nuoc Cham sauce and to be closer to his wife’s relatives. He found a warehouse for lease, originally for bottling and housing his products. A side venture making simple sandwiches to pay bills grew much more than he expected.

Customers started asking for catering and different styles of food. In 2018, he opened a 14-seat restaurant, with 70 percent of business coming from take-out. A second location followed, a collaboration with a St. Jacobs microbrewery. Tran had ten employees between the two places but wasn’t turning a profit.

Other business opportunities have arisen. Tran had one renter sub-leasing part of his space, then another asked, and then a third appeared. “Now I’m actually making money (that helps to pay for kitchen and equipment maintenance).” He has a handful of others waiting in line to use the kitchen for their business ventures. That could lead Tran to lease a second warehouse. He is doing catering or special pop-up cooking events in several southern Ontario cities, roughly bi-weekly. “I can do that. It doesn’t destroy my hands.”

Thompson Tran measuring spices at cooking class | Photo by LOF Photography

His well-loved Wooden Boat gourmet pizza has led an investor to suggest Tran open a “hole in the wall” pizza shop. He would consider the idea if he could act as operations manager and hire a young chef who could buy into the business. For now, he will focus on the sauce business and rearrange warehouse space to become more efficient for more renters. He is also considering a return to full-time teaching, perhaps as early as September.

He wants to teach culinary arts to high school students, not college programs where people are about to enter the industry. “It really is about empowering them early on, so it (love of food) is innate.” He hopes he can get students to make better food for cafeterias than what is served in restaurants. “How cool would that be?”

However he divides his time between various ventures, quality food will continue to be his guiding principle. “I have never done anything to become rich.” His main goals are making a living, doing what he loves, and giving back to the community. Having grown up in a family that had to use food banks often, he understands the needs.

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