When you first walk into Superfresh, Toronto’s new Asian night market concept, a small but mighty sign immediately sets the tone for the rest of the 4,000-square foot space: “Please remove your shoes.”
Besides the red sign is a basket full of house slippers and a mat holding “outdoor” shoes.
The establishment doesn’t expect you to take off your shoes, however, the set-up is a nod to Asian households where wearing outdoor shoes indoors is, well, unheard of. It symbolizes that this is a safe space for the Asian community.
And that’s precisely what Superfresh is meant to be: a space that sparks familiarity, showcases Asian culture, and is absolutely, unapologetically Asian.
The making of Superfresh
The idea for Superfresh was born during the pandemic. Lui, a chef and restaurater, found himself pivoting several times since lockdowns were affecting his businesses in the food industry. He was meant to open another location of his restaurant, Joybird, in the Annex Food Hall, but when COVID hit, plans changed.
Then last spring, he met up with James Lee, the owner of Annex Food Hall, to discuss an idea. Something that would support the Asian community amid the rise of anti-Asian racism. Something that would “change everything.”
“Trevor and I sat down, talked about the vision and settled on the concept of being unapologetically Asian,” says Lee. “[We thought] let’s be proud of who we are, our history, and, in this case, specifically, our food.”
Lui adds, “We thought, isn’t it time for us not to be an Asian restaurant in a Western food court? Isn’t it time that we had our space that we built together? Isn’t it time for us to share a space where we can tell people Asian doesn’t just mean Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino and its 41 countries?”
From there, they hit the ground running and got to work with their fellow co-owners Jae Park, an award-winning creative leader, and entrepreneur Dave Choi.
“For the community”
Community is a crucial pillar for Superfresh—not only did Lui, Lee, Park and Choi want to add to the cultural fabric of the Asian community in Toronto, but they also wanted to support and uplift the many talented Asian creatives in the city and provide a hub to showcase their work to not just Asians, but everyone.
A lot of the work—building, creative direction, bar and beverage design and brand design—was done by a small team carefully curated by the owners.
“We did think about hiring contractors, but a lot of ideas didn’t seem to encapsulate everything we wanted in this space, so we decided to take it on ourselves,” explains Lee.
Lee hired employees of the Annex Food Hall, who were out of work due to the pandemic, to assist as labourers, training them to build various installations in the space, such as the faux laundromat (an homage to Lee’s family business), the take on New York’s famous Canal Street in Chinatown (which features a Lui Vuiiton “store” sign, a play on Lui’s last name), and the quirky signage seen throughout the venue. Now, these employees are set to work at Superfresh behind the bar and as servers.
“There’s a sense of pride that they’re working in the space that they had their hands in,” says Lui, adding the employees were not of Asian descent.
“They ate a lot of Asian food during the [making of Superfresh] and they loved it,” Lui laughs. “And now they feel they understand the story. When we say we built this for the community, a lot of times we mean our Asian community. But this is also a place where we want everyone to celebrate, especially the subtleties of our culture that people don’t know about.”
“When we say we built this for the community, a lot of times we mean our Asian community. But this is also a place where we want everyone to celebrate, especially the subtleties of our culture that people don’t know about.”—Trevor Lui
It was also essential for Lui, Lee, Park and Choi to employ Asian women for support.
“Asian women in our communities are such a pillar…a really, really strong pillar. And I don’t think it’s talked about enough. So this gives us an opportunity to share that story,” says Lui.
Lui’s sister, Stephanie Lui-Valentim, worked on creative direction for Superfresh and is the brains behind all of the intricate, well-thought-out details that make the space truly embody the feeling of an Asian night market. She curated the vintage takeout menus and colourful colanders seen at the entrance, the selection of movie posters lined across the front of the bar, and the Korean playing cards and stickers (many of which she cut by hand) on display with mahjong tiles on the bar top and the show-stopping Lucky Cat wall seen at the entrance.
When it came to bar and beverage design, the team enlisted certified beverage and hospitality expert, Evelyn Chick, to create cocktails inspired by the unique flavours drawn from various Asian cuisines, and for light design (including the different neon signs seen throughout the space), they hired Nicole Cheng and Karen Lam of FuseNeon.
And the cute baby wearing the backwards cap in the brand’s logo? That was designed by Bianca Chamberlain (note: the baby is lovingly referred to as PQ—a nod to the baby seen on Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise).
Finally, Elaine Quan of EQPR was in charge of public relations, ensuring Superfresh would get the publicity it needed and deserved (including from us).
Superfresh showcases Asian-led and owned businesses across the city and combines food, drinks, live entertainment, a bodega, a speakeasy (with new passwords being dropped each week via social media) and other planned secret events under one roof.
The space features seven vendors and a full bar and seats 150 indoor guests and 50 outdoor guests on a patio. The owners took great care in curating the vendors, paying attention to bringing types of Asian foods not readily available in the city. Many vendors were not previously based in Toronto or are relatively young in their careers.
Current vendors include Auntie’s Supply, an Asian bodega featuring Asian snacks and condiments, GoodGoods, a mochi muffin bakery that also serves tea-misu and basque cheesecake, JanJan Indonesian street treats, Katsupan, a Japanese sandwich shop, Big Beef Bowl, a restaurant famous for its Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, Ssam Cha, a Korean bar featuring classic snacks (available only in the speakeasy) and Lui’s Baobird, which features Taiwanese Fried Chicken, baos and sides.
Guests can order from each vendor of their choosing using their smartphones, with food served to them directly at their tables. Each guest has their own tab, which can be settled by the end of their stay.
The space will also be home to an array of community programming including artisan markets, live DJs, pop-ups, fashion events and more.
Sharing the untold story
Superfresh will undoubtedly be a go-to Toronto spot for Asians and non-Asians alike with its aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, exciting programming and, of course, delicious food and drinks. But exterior aside, what makes the space extremely special is the storytelling weaved throughout the venue, such as the plaid shopping bag on the wall, reminiscent of those used by immigrants arriving in Canada carrying their belongings to a new country to start a new life and the chairs spray painted by Lui, each featuring a unique symbol or message. The name alone pays tribute to the first 24hr Korean-owned grocery store once located in the exact space as its successor.
“[Superfresh] is really a reflection of our community finding its voice in the last year.”— Trevor Lui
“We’re not just putting our story in here, we’re also sharing the untold stories of our communities and our parents who never had the chance to talk about it,” says Lui. “To this day, they still don’t say much and they might even question why we make such a big deal out of being Asian [because to them], it’s always put your head down and work. But [Superfresh] is really a reflection of our community finding its voice in the last year.”
“And that goes back to the whole idea of being unapologetically Asian,” adds Lee. “We were apologetically Asian, for many years, but not anymore. We’ve embraced it, we’re proud and we’re going to celebrate it.”
Superfresh is located at 384 Bloor Street West in Toronto. It opens to public May 14 and will be open six days a week (closed Tuesdays), from 12pm to late.