Restaurant owner recounts journey from Korea to Haliburton
It was Andy Oh’s wife, Sunhee Park, who convinced him to move to Haliburton and take over what was then called Haliburton Family Restaurant. At the time, he didn’t know where Haliburton was and had little interest in relocating to cottage country from Aurora, where they were living.
But it was Oh’s goal to open his own restaurant and Park had the vision of how to do it. The couple had a friend in Norland and Park suggested they travel north to visit him.
It was a summer day in 2013 and Oh said he was tired as they reached what he thought was their destination in Norland. Once they got there, his friend convinced him to get back in the car.
“Timmy says, let’s drive a little further,” said Oh during a presentation on Thursday to the Haliburton chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women.
Ten, 20, 30 then 40 minutes go by before the friends reached Haliburton, the town that also happened to have a restaurant for sale.
As they drove around the bend of County Road 21 at the bridge, they saw Head Lake glistening to their left and a busy downtown up ahead.
Park was commenting on how clean and clear the water of the lake was. Oh was impressed there was so much traffic.
Then they walked into Haliburton Family Restaurant.
“Sunhee kept saying something different from what I was thinking. She was already fascinated,” Oh recalled.
“They showed me the kitchen … I [could] imagine how I would work [there],” he said.
The couple decided to move to Haliburton almost entirely on a gut feeling. They sold their home in the city and on Oct. 15, 2013 relocated and three days later they took over operations.
“I believe something drove my path,” Oh said; life continued to guide him toward Haliburton. That’s not to say the move was easy.
On his first day running the restaurant, now called Maple Avenue Tap and Grill at 120 Maple Ave., he made $300. Seventy per cent of that was from drinks.
Oh shakes his head at the memory. He knew that they would need to innovate to make things work. Andy Oh moved to Canada from Korea in 1995 as a student. Having completed his mandatory military service in South Korea, he was looking for a way to move to Canada. Living as a student was the best way.
He ended up enrolling in Centennial College’s hotel management course in the hospitality and tourism department, a three year commitment.
“I loved it,” says a beaming Oh, dressed in his chef’s jacket before the CFUW gathering at Haliburton United Church Jan. 18.
He spent a good deal of his time learning the service component of the hospitality industry in his program, working as an intern at the Intercontinental Hotel at St. George and Bloor streets in Toronto. “I was very lucky because I got the opportunity of working there for four months without payment, but in the meantime I got the experience. They assigned me every department for four months. I was very happy because by law I could not work, but I did volunteer at the restaurant bar,” he said.
As an international student with limited English at the time, any chance to interact with the public and become more comfortable with the new language was welcome.
After school, his resume and customer service skills landed him a full-time job, meaning he could get a work visa and remain in Canada.
He met Sunhee Park and happily began working as a server, busser and floor manager. But his long-term goal was to own a restaurant. That meant he needed to learn kitchen skills. He took a pay cut and had to work three jobs while he learned.
“Always in my mind was I’m going to my plan, my goal,” he said.
There were a few bumps along the way, but the road kept leading north.
In Haliburton, Oh encountered a new challenge: learning “family restaurant” style food.
His previous experience hadn’t prepared him for the family fare people would expect of his restaurant. In fact, he was hard-pressed at first to figure out what that even meant.
“I don’t know what Canadians eat. Turkey? I know that’s [what’s eaten at] Thanksgiving and Christmas time. I watched that in the movies,” he said, to laughter from the audience.
They figured it out, offering a range of items from burgers and salads to a few Korean dishes. About a year in, they decided to renovate the space to make it more family friendly.
And then the customers came flooding in.
“I’m very appreciative of the local people,” he said, calling residents generous in their help and kindness over the years.
Now Oh is gearing up for a new challenge: he’s moving the Maple Ave Tap and Grill restaurant from its current location to 172 Highland St. The opening date is tentatively set for this April.
On Thursday, Oh captivated the audience, peppering his story with self-deprecating humour and a twinkle in his eye – something customers regularly remark on.
At the meeting, he treated the audience to some Korean flavours including glass noodles, or japchae, and a stone-bowl style salad with pickled and savoury ingredients.
CFUW meetings are open to all women (regardless of education) and serve as a social time with purpose.
The group gives money to women’s scholarships and also helps out in the community. Recently they’ve focused their efforts on helping the YWCA safe space, called HERS, by bringing in toiletries and other items requested.
Their meetings also feature local speakers. On Feb. 15, their meeting is open to the public and will include a talk by Chris Lynd and Sean Pennylegion about the Haliburton Syrian refugee experience. That meeting is at 1:30 p.m. at Haliburton School of Art and Design. For more information, get in touch with them at email@example.com.