For many small business owners, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed like the kiss of death for their companies.
But for Eric Ho, owner of Little Fox Bakehouse, the pandemic caused business to soar. Originally trained as an engineer, Ho made his career change about eight years ago, aged 34.
“I’ve always loved baking since I was a kid,” he says. “During my engineering days, I would still bake at home on the weekends or in the evenings. After 13 years, I decided ‘I’m not going to wait any longer, I’m just going to go for it and try it and see what happens’.”
So Ho went to the Pacific Culinary Academy for training, and opened his first store in Vancouver. He focused on French pastry because, on his frequent travels to Paris throughout his engineering career, he discovered a love of pastries.
“The first two years were really tough,” he says. “The first six months, I almost called it quits. I kept working at it, things slowly improved, my food improved as well, so after two years that store became quite successful and profitable.”
When his wife moved back to Richmond for work, Ho—who grew up here—began the process of finding a buyer for his business. Then he started looking for a space to open another bakery in Richmond. Little Fox Bakehouse, which is located in President Plaza, opened in July 2019.
“The first year was a little bit more quiet,” he says. “It took about a year, and then suddenly the growth exploded just this past year, exactly during the COVID time.”
The croissants are the main attraction, says Ho. And his store has a large selection—around 16 types, all baked fresh daily.
“We are the only one in Richmond right now doing this type of artisanal French-style pastry, we bake everything from scratch on site,” he says.
The most popular item is a double-baked croissant with salted egg yolk custard. That item has been an option since the store opened—“that one sells out the fastest every day, and we make the most every day,” says Ho.
But he’s also constantly working on new items and adding new things to the menu. He rarely works with flavours he isn’t familiar for, and sometimes takes inspiration from other croissants available at stores across the globe.
The pandemic forced Ho to close his store for just 10 days in March, but he re-opened and offered online ordering immediately, as well as free delivery within Richmond. Instead of reducing the menu, Ho and his team introduced new items during that time as well.
“For the first two months, 90 per cent of our business was all through the online ordering system,” he says. “Now it’s a different case, there’s not a lot of online orders, more people are walking in.”
The life of a pastry chef begins early in the morning—Ho starts around 5 a.m. most days, and the rest of his team arrives at 7 a.m. With a team of four full-time bakers, Ho admits that he probably needs to bring on a fifth, but because of physical distancing in the kitchen he’s not going to hire someone at the moment.
“Six days a week I start at 5 a.m., sometimes even earlier on Saturdays,” he says. “From 7 to 8:30 a.m. we fill all the cases with cakes and cream puffs, then things are baked off for the pastries. We roll croissants for the next day, and make cakes and other items.”
On weekday mornings, Ho and his team bake around 300 croissants a day. On Saturdays that number is doubled. From 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., Ho goes out himself to deliver whatever orders there are each day. And he finishes work at 4 p.m., which he admits is a tiring schedule.
“The adrenaline helped, I just kept pushing and pushing,” he says. “Most days I’m okay—I’ve always worked long hours, I can stand (for) 15, 16 hours a day. Also, when the business is your own, you have no choice.”
While the croissants normally sell out before closing time each day, Ho says any leftovers are donated to Richmond’s modular housing.
“It’s done through Tapestry church,” says Ho. “When I first opened, a friend of a friend basically knew someone and asked if I would be interested, and we just started from there.”
Ho says his only business goal was to get sales to a stable point. But during the pandemic, he’s been able to raise his employees’ salaries and also recently rolled out a health benefit plan.
“Hopefully sales will continue to be strong like they have been for the past nine months,” he says. “Those strong sales have allowed us to take care of our staff in a better way.”
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel