Industry Interview: Hawkers Asian Street Fare
Wayne Yung, Kin Ho, Allen Lo and Kaleb Harrell opened Hawkers Asian Street Fare in Five Points in 2014. Having just launched their second Northeast Florida location, in Neptune Beach, we sat down with Harrell to talk about the restaurant’s history and why, as entrepreneurs from Orlando, they chose to expand to Jacksonville, an untested market for their fast-casual eatery.
How did Hawkers get its start?
We all had family members owning restaurants, but we really did not have a ton of experience before we opened Hawkers. We have always loved to travel and would go looking for great food we couldn’t find in Orlando. At home we would get together with friends, especially at Thanksgiving, and have these contests about who could bring the best dish. We would throw in $10 each and the winner would get the money. Our gatherings grew, and some of the older generations started bringing comfort food, family recipes, from different parts of Asia. That became the basis of Hawkers. We chose that name because it is associated with food you buy from street vendors in Asia.
What drove the decision to expand your concept to Jacksonville?
The first year we were open, we had to perfect a consistent product. We did a lot of training with the staff and focused on controlling the flavor profiles of each dish along with the internal running of the restaurant. We focused on what it takes to operate one location successfully, especially one that is not chef-driven. We had a lot of discussions on how we wanted to grow, and still stay true to our values and beliefs: Be Disruptive, Always Care, Never Compromise. We knew we did not want to open another location in Orlando. Florida doesn’t have a ton of neighborhoods that offer what we were looking for, buildings with character and a sense of place that may be underutilized or underappreciated. Tampa seemed the logical next step. We had not spent much time in Jacksonville, but when we heard about Five Points and then visited, we all felt this was the place to be. The behavioral characteristics and buying patterns of the area’s residents matched with what we wanted to do. From what we saw, there were enough people who appreciated good food and had some interest in being adventurous when it came to cuisine.
What role does food play in placemaking and a region's development?
We saw opportunity in the Five Points neighborhood for a casual restaurant. The area had a little bit of a stigma to it but it was where all the cool kids were hanging out. Black Sheep was already there, so we met with those guys. That was the turning point for us. We saw the benefits of putting in time and money in the middle of the neighborhood’s transformation. Having another business there like Black Sheep validated our feeling that it was the right place to be. Food was helping to draw people back to this neighborhood and driving some of its revitalization. We heard a lot that the beach is a separate community, and that folks don’t cross the ditch. So when we looked for a second location in Jacksonville, the beach seemed the logical place. We didn’t find an existing building, but we still wanted to fit the character of the beach neighborhood. Our business culture is to become part of the community and our general managers join local non-profit organizations. We see that as a way to invest in the community.
How do different types of restaurants enhance overall economic development?
It feels like we are on the cusp of Florida’s culinary growth, and we believe we can add to the diversity and help bring customers by enhancing choices in a particular market. If we have octopus on the menu, maybe a chef down the street will also offer it, and diners will be more adventurous by seeing octopus in multiple restaurants. There’s a lot of room for opportunity in Jacksonville, with a large population who wants great food, more options.
How does Jacksonville continue to shape its identity without losing its character?
The answer is based on collaboration and agreement within the community. We’re improving while paying homage to what was here before, a marriage of the old and new. We don’t want to lose too much of what was here, we want to accentuate that. Part of the solution is also recognizing that competition is good, it provides more options and increases the overall appeal and attraction of the area. Whether people eat at Hawkers, Black Sheep or wherever, they park, walk and come back another time to eat somewhere else.