Martin Tang’s 20-year anniversary at Appetit Food For Thought is coming up in 2021. For nearly 20 years, Tang has been living his dream of owning his own restaurant, living in a small town, and owning a sailboat. Tang may be living his dream, but it hasn’t come easy.
Tang began his cooking career at the age of 14 in Hong Kong. While working in his first restaurant, a German chef took note of Tang’s cooking talent, and asked him to apprentice in Germany.
“I was free labour for him for three years,” Tang said. “Back in the day I looked at it as an opportunity. When you’re 18 years old, it doesn’t matter.”
After apprenticing for three years in Germany, Tang travelled the world. When he finally decided to settle, Tang chose to immigrate to Canada. He originally immigrated to Winnipeg, but after experiencing negative 25 degree Celsius, he relocated to Vancouver Island.
“Back in 2000, the Island was pretty quiet,” Tang said. “I had a really small budget to open, and this restaurant came up.”
Appetit is a small restaurant that serves food ‘the old fashion way’. Tang has two staff members that work in the restaurant. He said it’s they are more like family than staff. Keeping the staff small also ensures that everyone can get the necessary hours to make a living.
That family atmosphere is important to Tang. When he first opened Appetit, he made the decision to have the kitchen viewable from the seating area so he could interact with customers.
“The concept was that you walk in and make yourself at home,” he said. “I don’t want people to feel like they’re going into a restaurant. I want them to feel like they can walk in and get comfortable.”
Over time, the concept has proven to work. Tang has a set of regular customers who come in every morning, or every other morning. Tang said that many of his friends in Ladysmith he first met at Appetit.
“They started to know each other, they started to sit together, if they have one subject open the whole restaurant will get talking. It’s pretty cool. You’ll only find my restaurant in a small town.”
Tang built his customer base primarily through word of mouth. It’s been a challenge over the years to build and maintain his customer community, especially during the financial crisis of 2008.
“Downtown was a ghost town,” he said. “The bakery was still open, myself, and Royal LePage. Otherwise there were a lot of empty spots back then.”
“This restaurant is my life. It’s part of me. It’s more home than restaurant to me. It’s not even an option for me to close up and walk away.”
Tang was living on roughly 20 dollars a day during the financial crisis. He recalled one time where he went to get a two boxes of Diet Coke – one for the restaurant, and one for himself – but he could only afford one box, so he took three cokes for himself and the rest went to the restaurant.
One thing the crisis taught him was that when things get hard, he had to keep moving forward. Tang believes that each day will be better than the next, and that attitude keeps him going through all the bad days.
His experience in 2008 is helping him to weather the COVID-19 crisis. Tang received approval from Island Health to remain open. Appetit is serving meals for take-out with no dine-in options available. Although his restaurant is closed for dine-in, Tang has reached new customers in the time of COVID-19 because people who normally work on weekends are now at home.
“I’m more confident than I was. I’m getting older and wiser,” Tang said. “I lived through some very tough times with my restraint to get where we are today.”
Tang has lived in downtown Ladysmith longer than anywhere else in his entire life. He said it’s hard to see the way downtown has been impacted by COVID-19, but he believes Ladysmith will bounce back.
“Since the coronavirus started, myself, Old Town Bakery, and Beantime have all been talking to each other. It’s like teamwork. We understand how we’re running our businesses, and we try to work with each other, not against each other,” Tang said.