“Sometimes people ask us to hide rings inside fortune cookies”: Co-founder James Chiu on Mandarin’s humble Brampton beginnings
Since the late ’80s, Mandarin’s all-you-can-eat Chinese-Canadian buffet has been a go-to for family feasts, birthday parties and celebrations—but, when it opened in Brampton back in 1979, it actually offered an à la carte menu. Here, co-founder James Chiu tells us about the early days and how the Ontario chain has evolved over the past 45 years.
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I started working in the restaurant industry in Montreal, when I was a student at Sir George Williams University—which is now Concordia—studying business. At first, I washed dishes part time. Then a cook quit, so I was promoted. I really enjoyed it. After three years as a cook, I decided to open a restaurant selling Chinese-Canadian food. I was one of 14 people involved in the project, but I was the only one with restaurant experience, so I was put in charge. We opened the restaurant in the Lachine neighbourhood of Montreal, and we called it Sweet and Sour. I had big dreams for it: I wanted to open locations across Canada from coast to coast. But, even though I had experience working in a restaurant, I didn’t know anything about running one. We weren’t very successful, and after five years—when we finally broke even—we sold the business.
After that, I had a hard time finding work, but I had a friend who knew about a restaurant in Brampton called Mandarin. So I decided to take a trip west and check it out. I worked with the owner for a month, helping out wherever I could. Thanks to my experience with Sweet and Sour, I started to see where the business was failing—slow and inefficient service, subpar food quality. At the end of my month there, I asked the owner if I could buy the restaurant from him.
At Sweet and Sour, I’d had many partners, but I was the only one working—the rest just had money in the restaurant. I knew that, for Mandarin to be successful, I would need help. I asked my brother George and his wife, Diana, as well as K. C. Chang, the brother of one of my Sweet and Sour partners, to join me. And in 1979, the four of us made the move from Montreal to Brampton.
George and K. C. ran the kitchen while Diana and I were responsible for the front-of-house operations. I didn’t have big dreams of franchising anymore. Instead, I decided to concentrate on each customer, making sure everyone felt welcome as soon as they arrived and happy and satisfied when they left. That was my mission statement. We quickly became very busy, and soon we opened another Mandarin restaurant.
In 1986, to accommodate our growing crowds, we opened a new location in Brampton. At 9,000 square feet, it was our biggest restaurant yet. Our other locations had already become difficult to manage as à la carte restaurants, and it would be even harder in such a big space—there would be so many people to manage, customers to take care of. Our customer satisfaction was going down; we had delivery drivers coming in and out—it was very hectic.
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So, with the new location, I decided to get rid of the à la carte menu and introduce a buffet concept instead. With a buffet, customers could try everything. It also allowed us to introduce new, more authentic dishes, which some guests may not have purchased from an à la carte menu but were comfortable to try in a buffet format—like Chinese vegetables and mushrooms with tofu or some different seafood dishes, like salt-and-pepper shrimp and sautéed shrimp with snow peas.
Remember: this was 1986. Our customers weren’t as open-minded as they are today. Brampton’s population at the time was very white. I knew their tastes well, so our dishes tended to be more Canadian-Chinese fusion: chicken fried rice, sweet-and-sour shrimp, pineapple pork, chicken chow mein, egg rolls. They’re the basic items that continue to be the most popular today. We had over 100 dishes on offer, but we were still catering to white Canadians’ palates: we didn’t use MSG or any other seasonings that were unfamiliar to our customer base, like five spice or even ginger.
The buffet model introduced new problems, though. For one, our food costs increased. We had to double the amount of food we made because people tend to eat more when the options are unlimited. We doubled our sales volume, but our profits stayed the same because we were spending more on food. And waste was another issue: there was no take-home option, and we couldn’t reuse the leftovers. Presentation also became very important—the food had to look good as well as taste good. Unlike with à la carte, where diners will eat what they order, a buffet means that diners have the opportunity to look around and choose what they want. If the presentation is bad, no matter how good it tastes, nobody will try it. We made sure to present everything very carefully under the lamps so it all looked as appetizing as possible.
Back then, the scale of the buffet was a lot smaller—about a third of what we offer now. In the beginning, we didn’t have the grill station, sushi station, prime rib station or deli counter—and the ice cream station included just four or five flavours. But, through the years, we added on. Diana and I would go around the dining room talking to customers, who would tell us what they liked and what they didn’t like. We took that feedback and updated the buffet, adding new dishes and discontinuing unpopular ones. We now use waste analysis to figure out what people really like—because it’s not always what they say. For example, customers might tell us that they prefer crunchy broccoli. But, when we look in the garbage, we see that crunchy broccoli is thrown out more often than softer broccoli. With waste analyses like this every few weeks, we’re able to tweak menu items and recipes until they’re perfected.
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The buffet became very popular; the number of people we served doubled. So, in 1988, we opened up the first franchise location in Mississauga, putting one of our staff from the original Brampton location in charge. We realized that was the best way to expand the business: we picked our best employees from existing restaurants who were willing to work at management level, then we sold 60 per cent of each new franchise to them.
Today, we take training very seriously. The best employees from each restaurant are invited to our partnership training program at our headquarters in Brampton. Then, for two years, they study with me once a week and work in the restaurant below the offices. At the end, we select the top five students and ask if they’d like to open a franchise together. We also ask franchise leaders to retire after 20 years—or move on to work at head office or another department—so new people can have a chance.
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When we were closed for over a year during Covid, it was very hard. We did takeout orders and served a small-plate menu. When we were finally able to open up again, we were so excited. But we were also anxious: we weren’t sure how customers would react after so much time indoors and whether they would be nervous about eating buffet-style food. On top of all the government mandates, like masks when not seated and physical distancing, we implemented extra precautions, such as temperature checks of each guest upon arrival, and we put boxes of gloves at the buffet to make people feel safer about using the shared serving utensils. Luckily, customers were happy to see us reopen.
Now, 45 years later, we’re the destination for celebrations. Every day at each of Mandarin’s 30 restaurants, there are birthdays, family gatherings, staff parties, holiday parties, you name it. We’ve even had proposals—sometimes people will ask us to hide rings inside fortune cookies. We’ve also hosted weddings. People love it because they always know how much they’re going to spend and that there will be something for everyone.
When my daughter was growing up, she wanted to be a lawyer. But I told her that my job was the best because it’s all about making people happy. Now, she’s the COO.
I love when customers tell me how we’ve been a big part of their lives. I have regulars who used to come in with their partners who have since passed away—but they still come and sit down, and we set an extra spot for them so they feel like their loved ones are still with them. We’ve been here for almost half a century. People come when they’re kids, they grow up, and then they come with their own kids. We see their whole lives.