T-Brothers Food and Trading Ltd

Contributing to a vibrant Vancouver Asian-foods market
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
James Logan

Vancouver is famous for any number of different cuisines from fresh Pacific seafood sourced from 100-mile ingredients to a strong street food culture. The city is also home to authentic Chinese food and some of the best sushi this side of Tokyo, but Vancouver’s Korean-food ties also run deep and T-Brothers Food and Trading Ltd. (T-Brothers Food) has been a major importer contributing to the vibrant Asian-foods scene for more than 20 years.

Based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, T-Brothers Food has imported a vast offering of traditional Korean and Asian foods since Korea-native Terry Kim and Terry Park founded the company in 1994. “I went to college in Toronto and went on to work in the restaurant business,” tells Kim, who co-founded the T-Brothers Food with his partner, coincidentally also named Terry, hence T-Brothers.

Fresh off the boat -Korea to Vancouver and beyond

After years of learning the ropes in food and hospitality, Kim set out to start importing products from Korea in 1994, when he was only in his mid-30s. “We started importing and distributing Korean food to the local Vancouver area and onto Manitoba and Ontario,” recounts Kim. “In 1998, we opened the first T-Brothers Food supermarket and retail outlet, followed by another a couple of years later.”

Now T-Brothers Food manages a retail and food service side with Manna International Trading (Manna). “We eventually set up two importing companies by acquiring some competitors,” tells Kim. “T-Brothers Food focuses on retail markets and supplying big clients such as Costco and Safeway, while Manna focuses on the restaurant and food service industry.”

Connecting East and West

Just years after launching T-Brothers Food received the BC New Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2000 and things continued to progress. Between Kim’s companies, the operation now employs some 250 individuals.

“Our employees are very knowledgeable in our products because many of them are of Korean or Chinese descent but have also been educated in Canada, so there’s a good understanding of Canadian life,” explains Kim. “We understand the differences between Eastern and Western culture and can communicate between the two very well. That’s really our strength.”

A global offering

From in-house made Kimchi –T-Brothers Food was one of the first kimchi manufacturers in Canada- to red bean buns or brown rice, green tea to rice cakes, soy sauce to dried seaweed and even household products, the list of offerings is nearly endless. “Now we’re not only importing from Korea and other Asian countries; T-Brothers Food is importing from all over the world,” adds Kim. “From just below us in California to Norway and prongs from Vietnam –we’ve extended the range and depth of our products.”

“We’ve been in business for 20 years and for the first 10 T-Brothers Food focused on introducing traditional Korean products,” continues Kim. “The goal for the second 10 years has been to bring in items that will blend with more local products, not just ethnic foods.”

But there’s no doubt the ethnic foods demand is growing even stronger in Vancouver and other markets T-Brothers Food serves. “We introduced a seaweed product to Costco stores and we’ve been selling more than $300,000 in the product per month since,” says Kim. “We also supply our own kimchi to Costco and that’s been going strong for 15 years.”

Wading through regulations and restrictions

Having such a broad range of products mitigates some risk for T-Brothers Food; if something isn’t doing well in the market, there’s always another product doing exceptionally well, but getting the products into the Canadian border is another obstacle. “We recently signed an agreement to increase imports with the Korean National Federation of Fisheries (KNFF),” shares Kim. “But as an importer, we’re always facing a range of rules and regulations set by the Canadian Federal Importing Agency (CFIA).”

Kim says the company invests a great deal of time and energy in educating importers because something that’s acceptable in Korea may not be in Canada. “It’s our job to educate importers and communicate with them on our expectations,” he shares. “It’s a lot of regulatory work and there’s usually someone from CFIA in almost every week. But it actually works well for us because we have established strong credibility and reputation. Every new product has to be approved and that’s a huge challenge, but we’re doing a good job.”

Kim says at the end of the day, jumping through extra hoops for something is worth it because he wants T-Brothers Food to be a friendly, well-known name with Canadian consumers and large retailers such as Costco, Safeway, TNT and more.

“In September 2014 we did promotion for the Korea government through Safeway Canada –called the Taste of Korea event,” tells Kim. “There was live music with more than 80 performers and Korean food with 6,000 paid food samplers at the six-hour event.”

Kim says its coordinating outreach and activities such as Taste of Korea that really set T-Brothers Food apart from other importers. Another aspect that is unique to the company is community involvement.

“We have our own scholarship foundation and we work with local food banks,” shares Kim. “I also sponsor a local Korean soccer league with 10 teams. We’re very active in the community.”

Looking ahead in 2015, Kim says the company is developing another retail site. “The food industry is very trendy, so what’s new this year may not be popular next year, but more and more people are challenging each other to be better and more creative.” And that’s what keeps the market vibrant.

For more than 20 years, T-Brothers Food and Trading Ltd has brought life to the Vancouver food scene and the community with a wide range of multicultural products.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
BGL Brokerage Ltd.
Goodwin & Mark LLP