Last year, Brian Tock left his family’s manufacturing business in Canada to do the improbable: introduce Montreal smoked meats to Shanghai. Since then, Tock’s Montreal Deli has seen enormous success, garnered awards, and been praised by top chefs about town. We recently sat down with the smoked meat maven to discuss his success, the state of Western food in Shanghai, smoked meat, and more.
What inspired Tock’s? What prompts one to go from manufacturing in Canada to Montreal deli meats in Shanghai?
I was here for manufacturing around 2010. I spent the last couple days on my own checking out Shanghai. And after a couple days, just as a joke, I said “it would be great to open up a deli here.” There were no sandwiches anywhere. My uncle, Richard Tock, who’s been coming to China for 30 years, called me with the idea three years later, and I was up for the challenge. I started down the road and that’s how I made my way over here.
You’ve had an incredible year (not even) since you opened. You won That’s Shanghai’s ‘Best New Restaurant Award,’ and are running a hugely successful business. Reflect a bit on the year. What were the biggest rewards?
It was a pretty incredible year across the board. Winning the award is great and all, but the real validation is having chefs and owners that I respect, that are customers here, talking about their love for the food and the restaurant. To me that’s more important than winning an award. I don’t claim to be a chef, ever. I do love food and I have a skill making meats so it’s really nice to get positive feedback and love from the community for putting together a good product.
(Chuckles) I don’t even know where to start. The obvious challenges for any restaurant are locations and landlords, suppliers and staff. However, here, it’s even more challenging, and you can’t understand it until you’re in the midst of it. Everyone here has sayings like “this is China” or “man man lai.” You can’t get too up or too down. You gotta expect that it’s going to happen but not have that Western perspective of “I need it to happen now.” You can’t think “if it doesn’t happen now than everything’s all messed up.” That was difficult for me. You have to adopt a chill attitude towards the day-to-day process of working with staff and landlords or else you might end up killing someone. Or picking up and leaving.
Some days you think “what the hell am i doing?” And it gets to a point when you don’t see possibility. A huge driving force has been the overwhelmingly positive feedback. Again, you can’t satisfy everyone. But when people say things like “this is the best sandwich I’ve ever had and I’ve lived in New York,” it feels good.
I gather, from people I’ve talked to, and from what I’ve read, and from what I’ve eaten, you really took pains – baking bread at Glo London, house-curing meat etc – to ensure quality. A great idea is one thing, but executing it without compromising on anything for the most part is something else. Talk a bit about that.
I knew what my standards were for food. My standard was “if I was going to a restaurant, what would I want to eat and what would I want to know?” If you go to 98% of places in China French fries are frozen because it’s easy. And Chinese people know frozen French fries, so I’ve had Chinese people come in here and send back fries saying they’re burnt because everyone got used to McDonald’s. You can cook a McDonald’s French fry for six minutes and it’s never going to turn brown. Those aren’t real fries.
Same with my sauces and my pickles. I don’t add any preservatives. I take pride in that. Before I moved here I was trying to take care of myself on a food level, wasn’t eating dairy, etc. So people joke, “how can and you say that and then make smoked meats.” But the way that I make them, and the quality of the meat that I buy, and the way that we keep them in a vacuum seal ensures a safe product.
It’s a constant struggle to create the product that I want. During the initial four months up to our buildout, it was a challenge securing sources like bread baked in the city. This was a real big surprise coming from Montreal where you can find top-tier products from bread to cheese to meat.
I won’t sacrifice quality for a couple extra bucks. And going forward, it’s going to be an interesting time in Shanghai as ingredients become more available. The next five years are going to be very telling of how the Western food scene’s going to form here in China. Such a big population wants better food, higher quality food, more traceability, sustainability.
I’ve been to some Western restaurants where I’ve been very disappointed. Paid a high premium and the quality of the food didn’t do it for me. People are so quick to put “wagyu beef” next to something, but again what does that even mean? I’ve had steaks across this city that are “wagyu aged whatever” and I couldn’t chew them.
What do you think is the biggest problem with Shanghai’s Western dining scene?
I unfortunately don’t get to go out as much as I’d like because I am locked down here. I believe the biggest issue in Shanghai is that “quality” is a word that gets tossed too much – whether it’s food, ingredients, or service. From when you walk into a place to when you sit down and get your food, I find that the “This is China” expression is quite apt.
Something that’s great when it opens, good two months later, and then average a year and a half later is not acceptable in my mind. Now I’m not delusional, I understand the backside of it. It’s a young Western food culture that Chinese are not totally familiar with, Western expectations are lowered because we’re in China, there are cost issues, and issues obtaining ingredients. I struggle with it everyday. I’d like my margins to be better. But too many people are okay with okayness.
They say “what are the other options? We built a name, we’re in an area. We’ll be able to make it.” Or “let’s build it up, let’s do a really good job, and then six months later, let’s drop the quality, because what’s really going to happen? Customers might comment that it’s not as good as back home, but if you want Mexican you have to go there or if you want Lebanese you have to go there.” So literally, if I dropped the quality of my sandwiches, people would still come. But I’m not okay with “okay.” That’s why I don’t eat out a lot and that’s why I go to the same restaurants a lot.
When I’m back home or in a place like NY I’m open to trying restaurants because you have a lot of food options. There might be four or five restaurants in NY that recently opened, have been open etc., and I want to try two or three of them. Maybe I don’t order the right things, maybe it’s not my favorite meal, but I know it’s going to be solid. Here in Shanghai, someone says “let’s go try a new restaurant,” and my first thought is that if it’s shit, I’m going to be pissed. Because I’m going to be spending more money than I should be. And it’s because lot of these restaurants have a one-million dollar exterior and a one-dollar interior. They tout certain chefs, design styles, philosophies, but you sit down and eat the food, and it’s disgusting.” Not “okay,” disgusting.
At the end of the day, we need more accountability. People need to become more accountable for what they’re opening, why they’re opening it, who their customer is, how they want to deal with their customer, how they want to maintain their food – all of which I struggle with myself. Why do I only have one location now? It’s because I know that if I open up a second one and I’m not ready, my food quality is going to dip.
Did you ever have doubts that something as niche as Montreal Deli meats would succeed in Shanghai? Especially seeing how most Western seems to be sloppily-done or diluted for the Chinese palate.
For sure. Even while I’m sitting here, I always wonder if we can consistently put out a quality product as we keep building our base. Can we consistently build on a Chinese perspective? Can we become a food that Chinese people outside of Shanghai are familiar with, and not just because it’s a sandwich. And that’s what we were hoping to do. We strive to be more than just a sandwich. People might wonder why spend 75RMB on a sandwich when you can go to Munchies and spend 28RMB. It’s expensive to buy good quality meat and my process is curing three and a half weeks before the customer sees it. The atmosphere is comfortable and easy. Yeah, I’m from Montreal but I’ve had people from all over the world say “I can see this exactly like it is right now in Belgium and Africa and Israel and Malaysia, and different parts of China.”
This is just as rewarding as people complimenting me on my food. Because we eat with all our senses. People don’t just say “I’m going to come in and eat a sandwich.” No, you sit down, scan the place, and then decide if you’re comfortable, and then if you’re paying attention and not on your phone, you say “I like the music, I like the vibe. Oh wow, I get a piece of free meat, well I didn’t expect that.” Then the server comes over in a respectable amount of time. It’s not about how much money I can make on this customer. People always wonder why I don’t charge for extra sauce. We just started charging for extra cheese. It’s because if I came into a restaurant and I wanted a little bit extra cheese or liked my fries in gravy, I wouldn’t want to be charged extra for it. I’m not going to give you a full serving of gravy, but yeah I’ll give you a bit. I want you to have a good experience. If I’m a proper owner and am cognizant of all my costs, the extra 5 kuai that I’m going to make charging you for extra dressing is not going to make or break me.
Am I nervous or unsure? Yeah, I wonder if people are going to show up today. Are people going to come back, to spread the word? Did people have good experiences? As an owner of any business, particularly F&B, I’d be surprised if most owners and chefs didn’t constantly ask themselves, “is this the day that people don’t come in or collectively decide for whatever reason they didn’t want to eat here today?” Is this the day that someone has a bad sandwich and tells 20 people about it?
Fortunately, I know now that both Westerners and Chinese like my product, so it’s more about maintaining and growing. Ideally, one of the reasons we came to China was the possibility of growth. Introducing a new product. But there are always areas to improve, especially in the staff arena.
I constantly worry if we can go from 1-2 locations, 3-4. The biggest question is can I duplicate this? Can I train these guys properly?
Unfortunately, if there’s a space available for a second outlet I only get to a see it after ten other people have looked at it. Landlords want to deal with a people they’ve seen in the industry for five years. If you’re a new brand, they’re generally not going to take the chance. It’s a weird game of cat and house and it’s difficult not to be worried. On a food level, as long as I can maintain getting the right product, I’m confident.
You guys just cancelled your late night hours, right? Tell me a bit about that.
We had minor complications with landlords. I get something in my head sometimes and just do it. Then I’m sitting here at 2am trying to play our music be a little bit louder than I should have been because at 2am this street is pretty empty. M1nt’s around the corner but I don’t have the funds to hire someone who can hand out flyers in front, or get themselves in and leave them on tables. And so landlords complained “the music’s a little bit loud, what are you doing?” I answered that I wanted to open up late night, to which they replied, “Oh really, you want to bring more people.” It wasn’t an official “no,” but we have to do the appropriate conversation-type stuff before they greenlight it. So I’m hoping by the end of Feb or beginning or March we’ll have a nice agreement that maybe Fri-Sat we’ll be open late night.
To what do you attribute your success?
I’d be silly not to say luck. I do believe to a certain extent, you make your own luck. But I’d attribute it to attention to detail, dedication to doing a little bit more, and doing what the next guy wouldn’t think of, or want to do or have the time or effort to do.
Do you see Western in Shanghai heading more towards pop-ups serving authentic niche offerings in the future?
I do see some ideas coming into the fold. I certainly hope so. Opening up a 100-150 square meter spot is manageable. A lot of people are coming in with big dollars and big investors looking to open up a monstrosity that’ll make money from the get-go rather than saying “hey, what makes the most sense?” It’s better to first open up an inspired taco bar, or a shawarma place, or a deli style restaurant. Then you ask yourself, “can I have a bigger place?” Create a product that is what you say it is and don’t open up a pizza place that’s 500 square meters. It’s pizza.
I think Chinese people are open to more pop-up-style places too. The more there are the better it is for all of us. And that’s what I love about this city. When we first started we had help from a bunch of different guys – Brad at Goga, Austin over at Madison, Sean Jorgensen At Boxing Cat, Chris at Table One, Scott Melvin at the Commune Social, John at Scarpetta. There are a lot of really good guys doing great, fun, cool restaurants that aren’t huge by any standard….where people respect what they’re doing, and are trying to put out a really great product on a consistent basis. And i think on a niche-type level, that would be great for everyone.
Any future projects or plans for expansion?
Definitely. Unfortunately, we’re short-staffed as many places are. Also, the timing has to be right. We’ll find our next space when it’s time to find our next space. My hopes will be to have something open by June-July. Ideally, we would have shot for April-May. Personally I believe the best time to open up a restaurant here in Shanghai is April. People can disagree, but I think that’s the best time.
I have other ideas I think would work well but I’m up to my eyeballs in this one. So the plan is to concentrate on this Tock’s, build a proper team, expand the concept, and then on side, work with some smart people, and see if there are other concepts that might prove interesting. I’ve kind of been on my own, with some support from back home, and my uncle has been involved as much as he possibly could be. But all in all, it’s been a tough go. So yeah, there are some plans, but right now, they’re just plans.
One of my thoughts was to put out a challenge to all of Shanghai to help us find our second location. Whoever finds it will be able to eat at the second Tock’s for free once a month, maybe even once every three weeks. I can tell you right now, I’m having a very hard time finding locations. So if you have a space you think works, get me the details and put me in the touch with the right people. I’ll take a look at it and if it ends up working, I’m a man of my word and it would be my pleasure to offer that type of reward.
What did you have in mind as a general area?
Xujiahui and Jing’an are my preferred areas but if a great space came out in Hongmei or someplace else, I wouldn’t be opposed. There are a lot of interesting locations, that, if they felt right and made sense on a business level, we would have to take a hard look.
Any words of advice to expats opening similar niche, craft concepts in Shanghai?
The two biggest things I’d say is network with people who’ve done it already and people who are doing it, whether their concepts are similar or not. I’ve observed that there will always be haters but most people I’ve spoken to have really helped me.
Second, don’t forgo the Chinese process. Don’t think for a second that it’s going to go the way you want it to go. Respect the process, and especially respect your landlord. Building that relationship is going to be crucial to your survival here in Shanghai. And if you forgo both of those, I’d say good luck to you but I don’t think you’re going to make it.
Tock’s – 221 Henan Zhong Lu, near Fuzhou Lu, Huangpu district (黄浦区河南中路221号, 近福州路). Tel: 152-2113-3516. Hours: 11am-5pm daily.
Check out the Tock’s website here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].