New Owners at Van Loc
Maintaining tradition while planning for the future.
For over two decades Van Loc café in Chinatown (10648 – 98th Street) served the delicious Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi. Two entrepreneurs in their 30s, Wilson Wong and William Chen, took over the business in January of 2023 after the previous owner retired.
Boyle McCauley News had the opportunity to interview Wong, who handles public relations and marketing while Chen is more involved with the menu and food service. This energetic and enthusiastic pair are using most of the original recipes and suppliers, and maintaining the shop’s traditional Asian décor, including shrines. At the same time, they are also full of ideas about changes that will move the business forward.
Wong has been promoting Van Loc on Instagram every day since January 19th. He posts on TikTok, and he has been able to land interviews with local media, including Global and CTV.
Wong says their goal is to build something fresh and new in a community that he describes as, “tired but full of potential.”
“I believe in Edmonton and I believe in Chinatown,” Wong says. Wong and Chen are doing as much as they can to support the revitalization of Chinatown. They also support the Front Row Foundation, a charity that provides tickets to concerts and shows to people who could not otherwise attend.
When asked who the customers are, Wong says, “Everyone.” He and Chen are trying to attract youth by organizing social activities for them. Elders who patronized the business in the past are also giving the new version of Van Loc a thumbs up. People with low incomes appreciate a menu that can offer lunch for under $10. “They are coming in several times a week. If the prices were higher, it would be once a week,” Wong says. Allowing customers to use credit cards, which is not always the case in Chinatown cafés, is also a draw for people who rarely use cash.
Wong and Chen are paying their staff above minimum wage. The people behind the counter and in the kitchen are mostly students between the ages of 18 and 22. They can speak many different languages (some are international students), which is also a draw for quite a few customers in this part of the city.
“Try us out, give us a shot,” Wong says.
The Back Story
Wilson Wong and William Chen met when they were second-year students at MacEwan University. Wong was enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts program with a major in Psychology and a minor in Business. Chen was working towards a Bachelor of Commerce in International Business. They found they had a lot in common and soon became best friends. They are both Vietnamese Canadians and Edmontonians. Their parents, who were refugees in the 1980s, established restaurant businesses in Chinatown. So entrepreneurship and Asian food – including banh mi – are in their genes.
“I tried a job in insurance and banking,” Wong says, “to have more financial stability. Several of my friends were getting married and having kids, and I saw that they needed a secure income to support their families. I committed to three years to give it a fair try, but it was not a good fit. I enjoy the freedom and risks of entrepreneurship.”
The writing was on the wall for Wong as early as age 18. “I was a salesperson for Cutco Knives,” he says – “making phone calls, visiting people in their homes, getting referrals, making a presentation, and then closing the deal.”
Anita Jenkins is a retired writer and editor who lives in Boyle Street.