Trang Tran won’t soon forget the re-opening day of Sushi on Fennell.
Speaking on behalf of the Tran family members involved in the restaurant – her three sisters and two brothers-in-law – Trang was working in the back on that first day.
“The owner had taught me to use the fryer, so that was my station. None of us had ever run or worked in a professional restaurant before.”
It went just about as one could expect it to have gone under such circumstances.
“We didn’t know how to turn off the ordering system,” says Trang, “so the orders were just flying in. Some people were mad and yelled at us, but we kept at it. We kept sprinting back and forth from our stations.” Eventually, they filled every order, and after the last customer had left, they were exhausted and stressed. “We were kind of looking at each other wondering how much we could sell the place for? We really felt we couldn’t do this.”
The second day went much better, as did the third, fourth, and so on.
Since then, Sushi on Fennell – a longstanding Hamilton Mountain institution sold to the Trans in 2020 by the original owner – has flattened their learning curve, becoming a rising star in the Hamilton food scene. The Tran siblings – who had grown up with the family business, the venerable Huong Trang Fish Market in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market – are now enjoying hard-won success during a year of pandemic disruptions.
A remarkable achievement, considering that it all began with one whimsical post on a family group chat.
“My brother-in-law put in the ad for the business in our family chat,” says Trang. “He said ‘hey, we should do this!’. That started a running joke, with everyone saying things like ‘yeah, we always wanted to open a restaurant.’. Of course, we all have our own businesses, so we weren’t really serious at the time. There was no way we could do this.”
Still, curiosity eventually got the better of them. The Trans contacted the owner. “He said ‘Come by on Sunday, between 1pm and 5pm’ so we all went on that Sunday.”
— Aaron (@kitchencastle) June 3, 2020
When they arrived, the Trans learned that they were the first of many people coming into see Sushi on Fennell. Offering to go home and think about it, the owner suggested that they “think fast”, as the other potential buyers were very interested.
“We went back to the car and sat there for five minutes,” says Trang. “Are we doing this or not doing this? If we are, let’s go in and say yes, if not, let’s go home.”
In the end, the Trans decided they would take over Sushi on Fennell. They walked in and the owner called to cancel the other appointments. “It was very unexpected. We’d never worked in restaurants. We knew nothing about sushi, but something told us to just close our eyes and take a chance.”
The Trans took over in January 2020. COVID-19 was only starting to show up in conversations. “Mom was worried about it,” says Trang, “but we didn’t listen to her, focusing on finishing our renovations. It was just as we were finishing that they declared a global pandemic. Had we known that was going to happen, we wouldn’t have taken it over.”
Still, Sushi on Fennell opened on April 30th, 2020 and with their other businesses shuttered during the lockdown, the Trans were determined to bring their own entrepreneurial expertise and ability to learn rapidly to bear on the new reality.
The Trans are foodies through-and-through, and after learning the fundamentals of sushi from the previous owner, they were able to create some amazing dishes. They began to innovate, creating a fun atmosphere where they could be very creative together. Whenever they have down time, the Trans will test out new ideas.
Their most successful experiment to date? The Rainbow Party Tray, which has become their biggest seller which the Trans attribute to all the beautiful colours. They created supreme rolls topped with spicy salmon, avocado, or spicy tuna. This was the outcome of a social media collaboration with Taste Hamont.
The most popular roll is the Las Vegas, a deep-fried roll with cream cheese, two types of assorted fish, and avocado. It’s rolled, battered, deep fried, and then topped with mayo, spicy mayo, unagi sauce, and sesame seed.
Trang notes that they take all the pictures that appear on their Instagram and Facebook pages. “Sometimes we’ll post something and our phone will ring within seconds asking about that tray. We’ve had a lot of new customers these past several months who have come in. They say ‘everyone is talking about you! We just had to come in and try!’.” Customers have come in from as far away as Mississauga, Toronto, and St. Catharines, which represents a great compliment for the Trans as they themselves travel for good meals.
Like many other restauranteurs during the past year, the Trans believe in supporting local as much as possible. “We are trying to help everyone as much as we can,” says Trang. “I do want to be more out there in the community to help where we can. We try to make posts for other businesses, give them a little booster. We collab with other businesses to help them, which in turn also helps us!
Trang further notes she is willing to helping other businesses learn how to use social media and online technology to their advantage. “One of the reasons that we’ve become as successful as we are now has a lot to do with creating an online ordering system. This takes a lot of work off of us so we can focus on creating buzz around our food.”
At the heart of Sushi on Fennell’s success is top-notch customer service, which Trang says is a “huge thing” for her personally. “A gentleman made a comment when he first walked in that everyone was so nice here, that he never got that kind of friendly greeting with going out for sushi. Most of us are front of house. We know all about our regulars: they have a birthday coming up, their surgeries, etc.. Taking a genuine interest in our customers is a big reason why so many people come back.”