Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hardworking and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.
How many people can say, that from a very young age they knew exactly what their calling was? Bill Ha, owner of Richmond Hill’s famous Saigon Star, says that even as a young child growing up in Saigon, Vietnam he knew that his passion for food and serving others meant he was destined to open up a restaurant some day.
But life in a country still recovering from years of war was not easy, so in 1985 he left his homeland in search of the opportunities and peaceful life he dreamed of. His travels soon landed him in British Columbia where he quickly found not one, but three jobs working as a mechanic, a kitchen helper, and bussing tables all at the same time. Over the next 5 years he would work hard and save money to open up his own restaurant.
Bill then made another big move, relocating to Toronto. Bill, along with a business partner, took out a loan and opened his first restaurant, Saigon Star, an ode to his hometown, at Yonge and Bloor. This first location was, in Bill’s words, a very basic starter restaurant. But it was his, his “baby” as he affectionately refers to it.
After a few years in business, Bill saw an opportunity to open a second location of Saigon Star north of the city in the Markham/Richmond Hill area where the first big wave of Chinese immigrants were migrating to, from Hong Kong and China. And in 1993 Bill opened an all new location of Saigon Star in Richmond Hill along Hwy 7 where it still lives today nearly 30 years later.
Over the years Bill has opened 13 other restaurants in both the Toronto and York Region areas, and today has six thriving businesses each tapping into a different pan-asian food tradition. In addition to his success in hospitality, Bill is also proud of his 2003 Readers Choice Award nomination from the Toronto Sun and his 2015 Merit Award from the Association of Chinese Canadian Entrepreneurs. Let’s not forget his many charitable contributions to the community which include being an annual sponsor of the Miss Toronto Chinese Pageant and the Dragon Ball, an annual charity fundraiser benefiting the care of the elderly in the community.
During our time chatting with Bill and his son Thomas, whom Bill is grooming to take the reins of the family businesses continuing his legacy into the next generation, I got a chance to ask him a few other questions in addition to learning about his amazing story.
Yelp: What are some of your favourite businesses/restaurants (aside from your own) in the area?
Bill: I’m a big fan of the many different cultural cuisine in the area such as The Host (Indian) and a couple of the small Italian restaurants along Unionville Main Street like Lemon bistro
Yelp: Any advice for others out there who’d like to start their own business or follow in your footsteps by opening their own restaurants?
Bill: You’re going to have to work hard. You’ll work long hours at times and it’s not going to be easy. But if you have a passion for food and service, and you’re willing to put in the effort, you can be successful.
Yelp: What’s next for you and your growing restaurant empire?
Bill: In addition to working alongside my son (Thomas) to groom him to take over one day, I’m excited to continue supporting the community and making myself available to help entrepreneurs with a passion for this industry. I’m always happy to help mentor and help those looking to follow in my footsteps.
Thomas: …and we’ve got some amazing new restaurant plans in the works… but that’s all I can say for now so stay tuned!