Last March, Zhehong (Andy) Wen sat down in the dining room of Poke Mono, his just-opened restaurant off Broadway at Edmonton Street, and tears pooled in his eyes.

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This article was published 12/3/2021 (268 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last March, Zhehong (Andy) Wen sat down in the dining room of Poke Mono, his just-opened restaurant off Broadway at Edmonton Street, and tears pooled in his eyes.

With his wife, Lily, he had already taken a frightening plunge, putting up their savings to make their dream a reality, and the still-novel concept of a pandemic threatened to ruin their business almost as soon as it started. His anxiety was intense, but he remained optimistic.

"I believe we can make it," Wen told the Free Press then.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Poke Mono, which opened on the eve of the pandemic shutdown.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Poke Mono, which opened on the eve of the pandemic shutdown.

Today, his restaurant is still standing, having made it through two lockdowns, the hiring, layoff and rehiring of his staff, and a 12-month period in which a lifetime of restaurateur stresses were compacted.

"Honestly, it’s been much better than what I could have expected," Wen says in March 2021, with a year of experience under his belt. "We didn’t make big money, but we didn’t lose money. We made it through our first year. And of course, in 2020, the goal was surviving."

Restaurant dream quickly becomes social-distancing nightmare

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Zhehong Wen and his wife Li spent most of their savings getting the restaurant ready to open. (Miaelka MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)
Zhehong Wen and his wife Li spent most of their savings getting the restaurant ready to open. (Miaelka MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 7:00 PM Mar. 19, 2020

Last November, when the world was a very different place, Zhehong Wen decided he'd like to open his own poké restaurant.

Since moving to Winnipeg close to four years ago, Wen had a three-year stint at Japanese restaurant Dwarf No Cachette, and a brief tenure at Wasabi on Broadway. Since he was 18, when he left his home in China to learn Japanese cooking techniques in Tokyo, Wen had dreamed about creating a menu of his own — hiring his staff, picking his ingredients, running his very own kitchen.

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It was not easy: every single day since opening, Wen has been at work. "I haven’t gotten one day’s rest," he says. "I really didn’t have time to think." For several months, he was also the only employee, prepping ingredients and making sauces by hand, making every single bowl himself before finally being able to bring in two of the staff he’d hired and subsequently let go on the eve of the first lockdown.

Business started off slowly: the poke concept — a modern twist on a traditional Hawaiian fish dish — was new to the neighbourhood, and Wen expected it would take time before the shop truly got going. The pandemic made getting off the ground infinitely harder, with nearby offices empty, but things quickly turned around: repeat customers began coming back, Wen says, and new ones were ordering bowls for takeout every day.

A story in the Free Press about the restaurant’s unfortunate timing drummed up some interest, as did social media cosigns from satisfied customers. Food-delivery services such as SkipTheDishes and Doordash were lifelines.

"Every single day, we grow up a bit," Wen says. "The customers gave me hope, and the team did too."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Wen puts together a poke bowl order.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Wen puts together a poke bowl order.

He needed it: according to an August study by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, 60 per cent of restaurants were expected to close by the end of November, and Restaurants Canada estimates more than 10,000 eateries closed down due to COVID-19 in 2020.

Wen knows he’s fortunate to not count Poke Mono as one of those casualties. The customer has been the reason, he insists. "Who is our boss? It’s every single customer. They pay our salaries, they pay our rent. We don’t have a reason to not treat our boss the best way. We think of the customer as a friend."

Despite the fact he wasn’t sure whether his restaurant would keeps its lights on, Wen is now a seasoned veteran. Dozens of other restaurateurs are still plotting their futures in the city, with many more months of pandemic-related struggles ahead.

"If you find that thing that makes you excited, never forget that passion. Keep it, and it will push you every single day." ‐ Zhehong (Andy) Wen

Mike Phillips is one of them. For a few years, he has been researching the restaurant industry and has been working toward an opening date for Cafe Seven, a small restaurant on Wall Street. He hopes to open this spring after a series of delays, including many related to the pandemic.

The struggles restaurants have faced over the last year has Phillips scrutinizing his own decision-making, analyzing what he can do differently to stay afloat. He acknowledges that he has his work cut out for him, given the pandemic has changed everything, from business operations to clientele habits.

Seeing other restaurants succeed, however, gives him reason for optimism. "When I see new restaurants thrive, it’s an incredible feeling," he says. "I’m confident we’re flexible enough to make our business model work, and make adjustments so we are relevant and successful. The sky is the limit, even in these trying times."

That’s how Wen feels, too, despite all of the challenges. He says he’s no expert, but offers up some advice for other entrepreneurs thinking about taking the plunge.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Zhehong Wen, owner of Poke Mono, poses for a portrait at his restaurant (which opened on the eve of the pandemic shutdown) in Winnipeg.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Zhehong Wen, owner of Poke Mono, poses for a portrait at his restaurant (which opened on the eve of the pandemic shutdown) in Winnipeg.

"This is a big mission," he says. "Try to divide it into small pieces, and do them one by one. Always be respectful: to your customer, to your people and to yourself."

And always remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

"If you find that thing that makes you excited, never forget that passion. Keep it, and it will push you every single day," he says. "Even if you’re tired or exhausted, you can still get energy from that passion. Never forget why you tried to start the business."

For Wen, it was about making fresh, tasty food and providing for his family, which is about to grow by one member: he and his wife are expecting their first child in April, a beacon of light at the end of a difficult year.

"This year was hard, but I am so lucky," he says. "We’re getting to the bright side."

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.