COVID restrictions spark more entrepreneurial pandemic pivots

In a Main Street alleyway this spring and summer, Ivan Chung could be heard slowly and surely refurbishing, then refining one of those yesteryear Boler trailers – stripping the paint, sanding the surface, applying coats of turquoise and white, converting the bones of it to suit his vision.

At age 36 he, like many people, had used the time at home provided by the coronavirus restrictions to reflect and make an important life and career decision. His pivot.

The trained chef wanted to be the chief. The former worker in a one-star Michelin restaurant in London wanted something stellar of his own to run from his native Vancouver.

“It was time to restrategize,” he says across Zoom, holding – actually, more like containing – his one-year-son who was springing to life following an afternoon nap. “It was time to do something for myself.”

He bought the trailer from someone who had used it as a creperie. It will go with him now where he chooses, and that agency is at the core of his story. He is selecting something simpler than the bricks and mortar of a restaurant and something much closer to his heart.

The external encouragement came in two forms: His wife, Sophie Lau, is Malaysian, and they lived there long enough for Chung to be inspired by the cuisine; she has been at his side in the alleyway and elsewhere along the way; and a good friend demystified the perceived difficulties of starting a business “so it wasn’t as daunting.”

The result, once the health inspection go-ahead and inter-city business licences arrive and the plumbing and wiring are reinstalled, will be a modest sandwich trailer he will cart a few days a week behind his Jeep to somewhere outside Vancouver to deliver something distinctive.

He can be up and running in two weeks if the bureaucracy would oblige; if the business licence is delayed, there is always private property upon which he is free to sell.

His story is a great example of the grand reconsideration emerging out of the endurance of the coronavirus, of life and career choices that proffer more agency and not necessarily more money but yield riches in the emotional sense. If the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is teaching us anything, it is to bring ourselves closer to our values and recognize that time can’t be wasted down the wrong alley. Thus Ivan Chung’s tinkering in what he believes is the right alley.

There is a certain living-at-the-edge feel to his venture, but there will still be other income – and even that income doesn’t stray from his beliefs. Chung works to supply Elemeno, a local plant-based meal plan in which he rises at 4 a.m. to cater food for a Montessori school, so there is virtue across the board as he plots his path a decade into the food services business.

He estimates he will allot about eight hours a week to prep the ingredients for the days he will take to the road. Vancouver is saturated with food trucks, but in a place like Port Moody along its row of craft breweries, Malaysian sandwiches “would make me more of a rarity.”

This will not be a mass market offering. But he believes it will suffice – it will meet his own standards of acceptance – to sell 40 sandwiches a day at around $10 each.

“I’m just going to take it slow.”

Of course, slow in his mind is not necessarily slow in others – that schedule on the surface is intense – but there is emerging evidence in North America that more people are recognizing the obsession with work has its place but only if the rewards are commensurate. Their deliberations are pushing them toward solutions.

For some, it means making mixing work from home with work at some site, recognizing the place in the week for each station. You could sense that hybrid emerging in recent weeks with increased commute-time traffic, even if it isn’t approaching the congestion of pre-pandemic times. The downtown has life again, even if it isn’t yet bustling.

For the time being, the presence of COVID is distorting and delaying the picture that will likely result in parts of a workforce – but far from all of it – that balances its life differently out of a conviction that overwork isn’t congruent with a good life.

Of course, we can get drawn into the myth that everyone has the opportunity to do this.

Statistics Canada recently reported that only 30% of Canadians are working from home a majority of the time during the pandemic.

Even if that represents a six-fold increase during the coronavirus, we’re not talking about the norm but a rather privileged cohort. Most roles require a work arena with physical proximity. A McKinsey Global Institute report earlier this year indicated that low-wage occupations will not experience the same growth and flexibility.

Rather, experts are noticing that a larger group involves the remote workers and those who have taken stock about where and how they wish to work, how much they want for it and how much they will accept as a trade-off for more flexibility. They note this is bound to take time to take effect.

Which makes Ivan Chung and his sandwich trailer a wonderful barometer. Before long it will be time to launch, on his own terms. Watch for him.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.