Years ago, I interviewed Mandom Hui for a Halloween story. He was a recent graduate from culinary school trying to find pig brains for a recipe. We hadn’t spoken since. So, over the holidays, when I saw him on social media distributing N95 masks to restaurant staff, I was curious as to how someone goes from cooking to suppling personal protective equipment.
After studying culinary management and nutrition, Hui got a volunteer job helping chef Chris McDonald write a cookbook; that turned into catering work. Betty Cha, a chef he had helped receive payment from a difficult employer, invited him to collaborate on a project in Beijing. Despite not speaking Mandarin, Hui went to China. The gig paid well enough that he took time off when he returned to Canada. Wanting to learn about bread, he found a position with a bakery. Hui worked 80-hour weeks for almost two years, but, he says, he was concerned by the work conditions for unpaid student labourers and contacted the Ministry of Labour, which issued a stop-work order. Then he found a job doing butchering in an Italian restaurant, until COVID-19 shut everything down.
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About a month into the pandemic, Hui began to leverage connections in China, where his father owns a pharmaceutical company, hoping to provide access to ventilators for Canada. After connecting with the office of the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, he started getting requests from all over the world. Though there was inventory in China ready to ship, and there were motivated purchasers here, the brokering of medical supplies is complex, and the deal fell apart. But, thanks to interactions with Toronto’s Purchasing and Materials Management Division, Hui found himself labelled as a source for PPE. And that is how he got into the mask business.
Mandom Hui: So November 2020, I figured out that my name, cellphone number, and email address had been published online by the City of Toronto as a trusted PPE supplier — which explains why I have an influx of emails, about 350 a day, asking me to supply things or offering me PPE. And a ridiculous amount of spam on my phone. At the same time, Kross Direct, based in Etobicoke, sent me an email saying, “We are a manufacturer of medical-grade masks.” I looked them up. I said, you guys are furniture and electronic makers. I said I’d like to see your certificate from Health Canada, your manufacturer-licence number, and who the contact information is and how long you have been in business.
TVO.org: So your scam radar is up, and you’re asking if they are legit?
Hui: All the due diligence, because of all the ridiculous emails — in case they are a fake manufacturer. Within the next day, I received all the documentation. I replied, I am so sorry. The person who contacted me, she said, we need help to sell these. They can produce 8 million a month. But they can’t sell these, because pharmacies and hospitals are all locked in to orders with Cranberry or 3M, ahead of time. I reached out to restaurants. Nobody wants to buy N95. The price, at the time, was a little high. Restaurants were buying three-ply masks until this variant hit. Now, everybody wants N95.
TVO.org: So how much do they cost, and how much do you sell them for?
Hui: When I was first contacted, the price was higher. But it also depends on production. The more they can produce, they can lower the price. Before, it cost about $1.50 each. I said, I can’t sell these at this price. So they lowered the price. Now the N95 red, which is particulate, is 85 cents. And the N95 blue, which is the medical grade, is 99 cents.
TVO.org: How did you get drawn back into the PPE business?
Hui: The Christmas charity dinner I help organize, I had to pull the plug on it. Just before Christmas, I found out Blackbird Bakery was shutting down until further notice and asking clients to go to other bakeries. That’s crazy. So I asked Simon [Blackwell, the owner], how many families are affected? How many people do you employ? He said 70. So I started reaching out to different people to see who needs N95. I reached out to a few restaurants and posted on Instagram. Ever since, it’s been non-stop. We had at one point 8 million in inventory. It’s wiped out. We’re making 20,000 pieces each day, and they’re all presold. Government, NGOs, hospitals or front-line workers, their order goes in fast. It’s not first-come, first-served. So I have to wait five to seven days.
TVO.org: After a lot of stop and go, you’ve connected supply and demand. Having achieved that foundational business position, the typical next step is to extract value. So why are you distributing masks at cost instead of making a profit?
Hui: Everyone was telling me you have to charge some money so you can make some money and pay for things. I’m not making a penny on this. If I add commission, two or three dollars a box, how do you put a price on it? What percentage do you charge?
TVO.org: What have you been doing for income?
Hui: I was EI. And I had savings. And I also borrowed money from my parents, too. That was difficult, at 40 years old.
TVO.org: Then why not build in a margin to pay for your time?
Hui: People I know are sick at home. They can’t go out. The number of people I know who have COVID is climbing. And it’s getting ridiculous. There’s not enough tests, and you cannot get medical-grade masks. And the ones you can get are overpriced. Double or triple the price. It’s not about profit at this point. If I put a markup on this, and they can’t afford to protect their employees, and they end up shutting down, there won’t be a bakery to go back to who will donate bread every year when I do a charity event. If Sanagan butcher shop goes down, who am I going to get my 160 pounds of turkey at cost from? The point is, I’d like to have an industry to go back to so I can be the butcher or chef I want to be.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.