Momos Coming to Main Street; Family prepares to live and work in OOE

Andrew Lay and his wife, Sula, and their three sons, aged three, six and nine, stand in front of the site of their new restaurant, Sula Wok, expected to open this summer on Main Street. The family plans to live above the restaurant. Credit: Joe Paraskevas

Andrew Lay and his wife, Sula, and their three sons, aged three, six and nine, stand in front of the site of their new restaurant, Sula Wok, expected to open this summer on Main Street. The family plans to live above the restaurant.
Credit: Joe Paraskevas


By Joe Paraskevas

The day Andrew Lay met Su Xinhui, the woman who would become his wife, she pulled him vigorously off the street in the south China city of Yangshuo, into her restaurant to get him to buy something to eat. It was a manoeuver typical of the fiercely competitive restaurant owners who catered to tourists in China.

The lanky Canadian backpacker, hungry and cold, didn’t put up much of a struggle.

“Normally I might not be swayed, but she was very pretty,” Lay chuckled recently remembering the encounter, as Xinhui, who goes by the name of Sula, nodded. “It wasn’t like I was fighting.”

The food business would always be the backdrop to their relationship.

Now, Lay and Sula’s latest venture has landed them – and their three young children – in the middle of the dramatic changes that are transforming the heart of Old Ottawa East.

But the couple promises they won’t tug any customer through the door of their new Main Street restaurant, Sula Wok, expected to open this summer. Instead, they plan to take a gentler – even charitable – approach to feeding people.

It was a decade ago. Lay, now 46 but then in his mid-thirties, had left Ottawa to roam through China, teach a little English and try to figure out what he wanted to do next in his life.

He had grown up in Alta Vista and, until then, known two things: travel and food. Since 1984, he had run a food cart at the corner of Bank and Sparks streets downtown: first selling lemonade, then branching out to hot dogs and gourmet sausages.

Lay had developed a growing reputation. His Sunny Days food cart was a bit of a local institution.

He had also traveled widely: to India and south Asia and on a motorcycle through Central America.

The visit to China proved exceptional. It began, of course, with the chance meeting with the enterprising young woman at the door of her restaurant called the Yak Cafe.

Sula was actually tough enough to hold down two stores – she also had a small jewelry shop – in the busy tourist section of Yangshuo, She became Lay’s wife and business partner. In turn, he learned to like aspects of life in her country.

He particularly enjoyed the manner in which many stores in China were built: with residences above main-floor businesses. It was an attractive way of running one’s professional life while keeping family close by, Lay thought.
2017Feb PHOTO Sula Wok 2

“The communal feeling, there was something very attractive about living in that environment,” Lay said. “That’s what we wanted to do (in Ottawa).”

By 2008, the couple came back to Canada. Lay had sold almost everything he owned to be able to travel. But he hadn’t given up his Sunny Days food cart. For him, the return was relatively easy. Not so much for Sula.

“In some ways people might assume that because I am married to a Canadian that the transition would be easy,” she said. “Three children in the last 10 years hasn’t left a lot of time to cultivate friendships.”

She hopes the new restaurant can be a focal point to help her integrate more deeply into the community.

But as with many restaurant ventures, there have been high points and low.

Tibetan momo dumplings are coming to Main Street at the new Sula Wok restaurant. Credit: Andrew Lay

Tibetan momo dumplings are coming to Main Street at the new Sula Wok restaurant.
Credit: Andrew Lay

The food carts flourished. Lay and Sula expanded their repertoire, adding what they called Asian tacos – tortillas filled with rice, salad and all sorts of Asian flavours – to their menu. They introduced noodle and rice dishes, as well as Momos (dumplings), a Tibetan delicacy, in three varieties: beef, pork and vegetarian.

Despite the construction that hampered sales at Bank and Queen, Lay and Sula secured a location at the General Hospital on Smyth and another cart that moved around the city: to the Pearson building on Sussex Drive, Tunney’s Pasture, even out to Kanata.

“With such a positive response to their food carts, we started looking for restaurant space in 2014,” Lay said. “We felt confident in our product and we almost took the plunge on a handful of occasions. But at the same time all of the prospective locations had weaknesses that we felt we wouldn’t be able to overcome.”

The family, now with three young sons was living in the Glebe. The children were attending Lady Evelyn School and Lay and Sula were regulars at Church of the Ascension, the same church Lay had attended before he left for China.

“I was familiar with this stretch of Main Street,” he said. “I always felt this area was so underserviced.”

When the building at 184 Main, just north of Hazel Street, went up for sale in August 2015, Lay and Sula jumped at the chance to finally open a restaurant. They came to look at the site one afternoon and within four hours they made an offer.

They liked its zoning designation, too. It allowed for both residential and commercial uses. The dream of living in a space above their business – an arrangement that harkened back to their first days in China – seemed very close.

“It’s a perfect fit for us,” Sula said.

They took possession that November but to obtain a building permit took a year. Last summer they sold their house in the Glebe and bundled everyone into a one-bedroom apartment next door to the restaurant site while construction of their new home and business began. It was a lean year for everyone.

“According to our building inspector, it’s going really well,” Lay said, about construction. “According to our bank account, it’s going less well.”

“Everyone has sacrificed a lot,” Sula added, saying the children haven’t received many new toys lately.

Even their three-year-old is asking when construction will be over. Lay and Sula post photos on Sula Wok’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show customers the progress of construction work.

Sula Wok’s opening – and perhaps the way it operates in the future – will involve public goodwill.

Lay and Sula plan to turn to the international crowdfunding website Indiegogo to pay for some of the appliances in the restaurant. They want to raise about $30,000.

As incentives for people to donate, they will offer gift packages. For example, a $50 contribution would merit the donor a $15 gift card, the right to be named on the restaurant’s web page … and an order of momos. A $200 donation would bring a $100 gift card and an evening lesson of Asian cooking.

Lay, himself, is no stranger to charity. He would donate food regularly to homeless people he saw in his years running the Sunny Days food cart.

He hopes to introduce deferred purchases when Sula Wok opens. Customers will pay for their meals, but they will also be able to pay for food to be given to people who might come to the restaurant unable to pay.

“So much of that comes back to faith,” Lay said, “and the question: do you give away when you feel you might be in need yourself? It comes back to faith that we are all connected and we will be taken care of.”

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