By Xintian Tina Wang
Growing up in his parent’s Asian restaurant when he first came to New York from Malaysia, Allen Lo remembered studying at the bustling restaurant and swore he would never work in the food industry.
When Lo finally got out of home and became a professional in real estate, he did not want to go back due to the harsh working environment at restaurants. This was true for his friends Kaleb Harrel, Wayne Yung, and Kin Ho as well, who were also the “restaurant kids.”
However, a trip to Asia together inspired the four to open a restaurant featuring dishes often found at “hawkers,” Asian street food stalls. Founded in 2011 in Orlando, Florida, Hawkers Asian Street Food serves food like Seoul hot chicken, pork belly bao, wonton soup, curry laksa ramen, and spicy dan dan noodles. Since launching, Hawkers has expanded to 13 locations in seven states and transformed from a passion project into a leading Asian food disrupter in the industry. In 2022, its annual revenue reached $55.8 million, with a projected revenue growth rate of 29 percent over 2023.
This is a story about how the four best friends broke the bamboo ceiling to forge a successful AAPI-led brand that disrupts the food industry.
Don’t let them dilute your culture
The menu at Hawkers showcases the four co-founders’ favorite dishes from their travels to Asia, where two of the co-founders’ families still live in Malaysia and Hong Kong. Lo said that the restaurant also featured his family’s passed-down recipes like his grandmother’s curry dipping sauce, which are still sold on the streets of Malaysia.
“I spent most of my life growing up being the Asian kid with the stinky kimchi in my fridge. And now it is exciting for me to see our customers wanting to have extra kimchi,” says Lo, brand chef and co-founder of Hawkers. “I finally get to share the stuff that I was hiding at some point in my life.”
The biggest challenge AAPI brands face today is to scale without sacrifice, says Harrel, CEO and co-founder of Hawkers. It can be difficult at times to find the right ingredient for his menu items.
“I don’t want to simplify our dishes or dilute the authentic culture,” says Lo. “We will just remove it from the menu and come up with another dish that we can execute authentically.”
“Be disruptive, always care, and never compromise.”
When the four first founded the restaurant in central Florida, Harrel says that many customers did not understand the concept of street food. To make sure the restaurant’s vibe is both authentic and acceptable to local Americans, they decided to play the popular documentary Bizarre Foods with Anthony Bourdain from the Travel Channel in the dining room, so customers can understand how enjoying Asian street food can be an adventurous journey.
In addition, food sharing is not ubiquitous at the dining table in the U.S., so Hawkers encourages customers to break their habits by ordering several small dishes and reaching over the table to try out every dish.
Sticking to its mantra “Be disruptive, always care, and never compromise,” Hawkers would often have meetings with chefs to create new dishes and organize community events like Hawkersfest to engage the AAPI audience, Harrel says.
The acceptance of Asian food in the U.S. has been especially meaningful for Asian American immigrant children like Lo. By introducing a greater variety of dishes and advocating for greater visibility, Asian American chefs and entrepreneurs have created opportunities to showcase a wider range of regional and home-style Asian cuisines, leading to a deeper appreciation of the culture behind it.
“One of the biggest ways we’ve seen success as an AAPI-led brand is in finding the right balance between honoring the traditions and creating new traditions while forging paths for ourselves in this space. Success is recognizing the importance of both, and we work daily to find harmony between the past and the future,” says Lo.
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