“If I am awake, I am working”: A bakery owner on the unrelenting stress of running a small business and parenting in a never-ending pandemic
An Tran had a plan: After years working in kitchens across the city, he finally had the perfect spot to open his own restaurant. With one young daughter at home and a baby on the way, he was almost ready to open—and then Covid hit. Two years later, he’s had to adjust (and readjust) to the ever-changing realities of the pandemic. And with Omicron here, all the pressures—as a chef, a small-business owner, a parent, a son and a partner—are coming to a head, forcing him to wonder how any of this is sustainable. The good news: he makes incredible bread, and a mean butter tart.
Two years ago, I began building my dream restaurant. The plan was a coffee shop and bakery during the day, and then a full-service restaurant at night, featuring the food I grew up with in a Vietnamese family living in Toronto. The name, Ba Noi, means grandmother in Vietnamese. It’s a reference to being at home or in a comfortable space—essentially eating at granny’s. The location, a little storefront on Bloor West, also has a family connection: it’s where my dad ran his printing business when I was growing up, and we lived in the basement apartment.
My parents bought their first house in the ’burbs about 10 years ago, but the business stayed on Bloor. Then, in 2017, my wife and I had our daughter Róisín. We needed childcare, and at the same time, my parents wanted to work less and spend time with their grandchild, so I took over my dad’s workspace. I’d been working in kitchens for years at that point—Cumbrae’s, Parts & Labour, Mattachioni, Robinson Bread—and it felt like the right time to go out on my own. At least that’s what I thought, until March 2020.
The restaurant was probably about 80 per cent ready when Covid hit—I was just waiting on some equipment. Suddenly, everything was on hold and I was left bleeding money—on rent, utility bills, lease payments on the equipment that still hadn’t arrived. Because the business didn’t have any revenue, I didn’t qualify for any of the government assistance. I spent that first couple of months writing desperate letters to politicians: my MP, my MPP, my city councillor, the BIA, Doug Ford, even Justin Trudeau. I kept getting redirected to the programs that I wasn’t eligible for, which made me feel totally invisible.
My second daughter, Méabh, was born in May. Restaurants were still shut down at that point, but I knew I had to do something to provide for my family and to begin paying off my growing debt. When the federal government finally opened up the CEBA loan to all business owners, I was able to get some equipment installed. Opening a full-on restaurant at that point wasn’t an option, so I wanted to come up with something that I could do on my own. I had been working on my sourdough during lockdown, having trained with some of the city’s bread masters, so I just thought, okay, people are really liking bread these days. That’s what I’m going to start with.
I opened in July of 2020. First, I was selling 20 loaves a day, then 30, then 40. I added demi baguettes, pan loaves, cookies and butter tarts. Every day, I would sell whatever I could make. My MPP, Jessica Bell, gave me a shout-out on Twitter, and people started talking about my shop in the neighbourhood Facebook groups. Demand has never been an issue. But I’m working in a kitchen that was designed for a restaurant, not a commercial bakery. I’m making my bread in a single-deck pizza oven, and there’s only so much space, and so many hours in the day. I’m making ends meet. But to grow the business, I need more equipment and staff, and I don’t have money for either of those things right now. I still dream of turning this into my restaurant, but at this point I can’t afford to take that kind of risk. And I just can’t afford it period: I haven’t even started to pay back my CEBA loan.
I guess in some ways I’m lucky that I’m stuck with takeout. It means that I haven’t had to shut down and then reopen and then shut down and reopen, the way so many in this business have. But the lockdowns have hit me hard. Before the most recent shutdown, I had built up some regular business and even some wholesale accounts at a few local bars and cafés, and now all of those are on hold. Meanwhile, the cost of ingredients keeps going up: my total weekly overhead has gone from about $500 to close to $1,000 on some weeks. And that’s if I can even get the ingredients and supplies I need. The supply chain issues are brutal. I’m having to run over to Fiesta Farms in the middle of a shift to pick up supplies.
If I am awake, I am working. Wednesdays are supposed to be my day off with the kids, but I haven’t been able to take one in months. I’m still doing paperwork at home, then going into work in the evenings. In December, there were weeks where I barely slept. Or I slept at the bakery because if I didn’t work well into the night, I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill all of the orders. Or I would miss mixing times or baking times for the panettone. I don’t even like panettone! I do it every year because everyone loves it and I guess I like the challenge. It’s one of those recipes where anything can go wrong at every step. You can’t just set a timer—you have to constantly check on it. Maybe I could have made less, but then you’re thinking, What happens when things slow down in January and I can’t make rent? The food industry has always been hand to mouth, but this is next level. I’m coming up with new menu items—a new cookie, or a curry beef bun—just to make an extra $40 a week.
And it’s not just me I’m worried about. I brought in one full-time staffer last spring and another part-timer. It’s great to have the help and to have a couple of other humans that I see on a regular basis. But I worry about being able to provide for them, for their families, to make sure they can pay rent. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I’d never started my own business. It’s tempting, but then I think about why I wanted to do this. I wanted to create a safe space, free from the toxicity of the restaurant industry; the kind of place where staff feel safe and supported without the expectation that they’re going to have to work around the clock. So that’s what I’m doing. What choice do I have? It’s all I know how to do. My parents refinanced their home to help me get this business going. When I can’t sleep, I imagine what would happen if I failed, and they lost their house that they worked their entire lives to afford.
Quitting just isn’t an option.
Even if that means I go days without spending much time with my daughters—and when I am with them, I’m so tired that I’m sleeping on the couch and they’re crawling all over me. I’m like a play structure—that’s our quality time. The other day, my wife said she feels like she’s raising our children on her own, which was probably the worst moment of the pandemic so far. Before Covid, we had talked about how she would take the lead on parenting while I got the restaurant off the ground, but this is obviously not what she signed on for. I spent last Wednesday trying to help my daughter do virtual schooling while taking care of the baby, which was just a total shitshow. I can’t decide if I’m more frustrated with our government as a parent or a restaurant owner. I guess it’s a tie.
I am relieved that kids are apparently going back to class next week, but my parents don’t have their boosters yet, so we’re not sure if it’s safe to see them once our daughter is seeing other kids every day. My wife’s mother was also unable to get a booster and she caught Covid last week. Her symptoms have not subsided yet, so that’s another worry.
You hear people talk about the importance of self-care, and I’m just like, when would I possibly have time? I have started to think that taking care of yourself is only for people who are already doing okay. My version of “me time” used to be going to Parkdale for a pack of momos. But it’s been months since I was able to do that or do anything other than pour myself a stiff drink. With both kids too young to be vaccinated and Omicron being so transmissible, we’re really not seeing anyone. A couple of weeks back, an old friend stopped by and we had a beer outside on the stools. One beer—the kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought twice about in normal times—and it was probably the highlight of my holiday. Or at least it was the only time that I wasn’t in my own head.
I keep telling myself this can’t go on forever, but it feels like it has. I don’t like to romanticize food or the work I do. I like to bake, I make a pretty good butter tart, and I would love to run my own kitchen when this is all behind us. But really I just want to do something worthwhile that I’m good at, and then spend time with the people that I love. There has been so much to be sad and anxious about over the last two years but at the same time, it has really brought the things that matter into focus. I hope when my daughters are older, they understand that I’m building something that they can be proud of.
For now, I will keep going, keep dipping into my reserve tank when I feel like I can’t get through the day. And keep feeling grateful for the amazing people who have supported me and who sometimes remind me that there are people who have it worse than I do. Right before Christmas, I had a customer come in who told me that she was having surgery in a few days, so she would be missing out on the holiday. She said the only thing making her smile was one of my treats, and of course that made me smile too. I know there are better days ahead. I just hope I get there.
—As told to Courtney Shea