A “Bao” To Waterloo Sandwich Entrepreneurs

A “Bao” To Waterloo Sandwich Entrepreneurs

I love food. I love entrepreneurs. Put them together and you have remarkable people who take chances on risky food businesses in a fickle and volatile and unforgiving industry. Kudos — a bow, you might say — to them all.

I love it more when they build a restaurant — and I mean virtually build a restaurant, or at least most of it. With You Tube guiding them.

Located near Waterloo Collegiate Institute (Photo: WREats).

Located near Waterloo Collegiate Institute (Photo: WREats).

That’s the case of Joey Tanaisak and his brother, Mike. Together with their parents they have literally built a small family business out something as simple as the sandwich.

“It’s very much me and my cousin, who manages the restaurant, that run the place. My brother was instrumental in the construction of the interior, but in terms of cooks and others in the kitchen we don’t really have titles,” says Tanaisak. They currently employ eight people.


Bao co-owner Joey Tanaisak (Photo: WREats).

When you visit Bao Sandwich Bar, check out the wood wall that faces the outside: it’s hundreds and hundreds of end cuts of cedar four-by-four posts, individually cut and sanded by the brothers. Tanaisak says he was eventually able to do about 500 a day.

It’s a You Tube generation to be sure: rather than rely on the expensive services of a general contractor (except for the heavy-duty kitchen equipment), Tanaisak used the massively popular search engine to figure out framing, finishing and other construction for the restaurant.

Cedar wall decor (Photo: WREats).

Cedar wall decor (Photo: WREats).

Tanaisak attended Conestoga College’s culinary arts program and says getting into the business was just something that the family wanted to do. “At an early age, I knew I really wanted to open a restaurant.” He’s worked at establishments like Earl’s, Moxie’s as well as Q BBQ in Cambridge and Dels here in Kitchener.

Now granted, it’s a couple of rather special sandwiches — and ones that have needed more attention here in Waterloo — which are, in part, a good reason for the business’s early success: banh mi and bao.

Those two luscious sandwich beauties spoke to Tanaisak. “I just like the concept that these sandwiches have. I mean you can put anything in them.” He spent nearly two years developing the idea for the restaurant and the food and playing around with recipes before launching their sandwich bar concept.

beef bao

Five-spice beef bao (Photo: WREats).

It’s a smart concept to peg: simple, low price point, somewhat scarce and unique in the Region, generates heavy foot traffic and is just plain fun. “I like cooking Thai, Laotian and Korean food but eventually we want to venture into other cuisines — Italian perhaps — in the sandwiches.” The restaurant is licensed under LLBO and is closed Sundays. It seats about two dozen.

With limited marketing having been done, Tanaisak says that word-of-mouth has done a great job getting in students but also folks from businesses too. They’ve taken another entrepreneurial, step too, literally: “We’ve teamed up with Grand River Rocks [a rock-climbing gym in Kitchener] and give discounts to their members. Our staff in turn go there,” Tanaisak says of the mutual relationship.

Pork belly banh mi (Photo: WREats).

Pork belly banh mi (Photo: WREats).

The kitchen makes just as much of the food as they can, other than the baguettes for banh mi and some hot sauce. The steamed bao buns are made by the dozens each day; it’s a fairly traditional dough that’s a little sweeter than a regular bread dough. “It’s gets shaped into an oval, and then we fold it over and steam it,” Tanaisak says of the relatively simple procedure.

A step in the bao-making process (Photo: WREats).

A step in the bao-making process (Photo: WREats).

With items like bao steam buns, popular Thai tea, banh mi, duck poutine, spring rolls and kimchi fries on the menu — and all relatively inexpensive — Bao has had a good start since it opened at the end of 2015.

Is a franchise or another venue in the works? Tanaisak says they’re taking it slowly and just trying to build a following for now. With easily a couple hundred bao coming out of the steamer on busy days, he seems to have established a foothold for the business and says they are already profitable. “We think about expanding but first we want to focus on this and make it right.”


Bao and banh mi board (Photo: WREats).

Bao Sandwich Bar is located at #106-62 Balsam Street, Waterloo, Ont., N2L 3H2. That is a street over from University Avenue and just behind the new Wilfrid Laurier University Lazaridis School of Business and Economics. It is around the back of the complex at 62 Balsam on a subterranean level. Slightly hidden — but delicious.

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