Why T&T Supermarkets hired director Justin Wu to help tell its story

T&T Supermarkets CEO Tina Lee has a vision of moving culture forward through food, and was seeking a way to bring the story of Canada’s largest Asian supermarket chain to a broader audience.

That quest led to acclaimed Canadian TV director and photographer Justin Wu, who this week joined the company as its first-ever creative director. According to T&T, Wu will channel his “artistic expertise to introduce the T&T experience and Asian food culture to the main stage,” through entertaining content running across multiple chnanels.

“T&T is full of special people, products and recipes, and I’ve been looking for a way to bring these stories to a wider audience,” said Lee in a release. “And what better way to do that than to bring in a professional storyteller as talented and accomplished as Justin.”

On an Instagram post showing Wu officially joining the company this week, Lee said that the filmmaker and T&T “is going to be a crazy mash-up.” Commenting on her post, Wu described it as “an uncanny, yet perfect partnership.”

The son of Chinese parents from Hong Kong, Wu was born and raised in Toronto, and has pursued an eclectic career. He has a degree in biology from Queen’s University, but began his career in banking in Paris. He later became an acclaimed photographer, shooting for the likes of Vogue, Elle, and GQ, before moving into directing—first with the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience, followed by extensive commercial work for a variety of brands.

Wu said the T&T role was not one that he sought out. Instead, it is the result of a chance meeting with Lee at an entrepreneurial event, where they were seated together. “I’d never met Tina before, and we just hit it off quite well,” he said. “It really inspired me to hear her story and hear her mission, which is to become an ambassador of Asian cuisine to the masses.”

That conversation led to a subsequent invitation to dinner at Lee’s house with her family, where the two had a frank and open discussion.

“We spent eight hours talking and having this open conversation about our desires, our mission, our mandate, not just from a business sense but from a very personal sense—what we want to achieve, and the legacy we want to leave behind,” said Wu.

That conversation would spark his interest in bringing the T&T brand story to a broader audience. While T&T is well-known among Canada’s Asian community, Wu believes he can use his skills to reach other consumer segments. “I’m still a film director and photographer, and I will continue to pursue Hollywood, but I’m in a certain position where I can use a lot of the contacts, and the skills I’ve developed, and really synthesize that with the T&T story.”

He joins a company that is very much on a growth trajectory. T&T opened a new 45,000 square-foot store in Calgary, its fourth in the city, this week. The company now has more than 30 stores across B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, with a Montreal location set to open later this month.

But despite the store’s strength as a specialist market, Wu said there’s an opportunity to grow awareness beyond its current customer base. “I think Asian food really deserves a new lens [and] a new perspective,” he said. “I think there’s a way to remix the story. I’m a storyteller that happens to have experience across every type of industry, from automotive and fashion to beauty and CPG, as well as on television, and I want to use that to give Asian food the attention it deserves. I think there’s a beautiful story there.”

While the creative director role is more common with beauty and fashion brands, Wu admitted that the role in the context of grocery retail is “very, very out-of-the ordinary.”

But he goal is to use some of the approaches and sensibilities of industries like fashion and beauty to frame the T&T experience. Fashion brands, for example, tend to excel at functions like curation and creating ambience, which is an avenue that T&T could potentially explore, he said.

“We don’t see T&T Supermarkets as just a big box supermarket, but as an opportunity for discovery,” he said. “The store itself can become an experience.”

Wu acknowledged that such a seemingly out-of-the-box partnership potentially represents a “big risk” for Lee and T&T, but it also holds a lot of promise. “It brings me a lot of joy,” he said. “I would have never dreamed I would ever be here… but that’s where true innovation lies—when you have this kind of uncanny but also very perfect partnership.”

Chris Powell