Bulgogi Beef Street Skewers. Roti Canai. Korean Twice-Fried Wings. Miso Ramen, Sichuan Wontons. Are you hungry yet? The first glance at the menu of Hawkers Asian Street Food is a show stopper. And if that is not enough to grab your attention, maybe you will marvel at the eye-catching designs of one of its locations, which can evoke a panorama of street scenes and tableaux with graffiti murals and a gift shop-style displaying of waving maneki-neko lucky cats.
Hawkers is inspired by the street food vendors its four co-founders, Kaleb Harrell, Allen Lo, Wayne Yung and Kin Ho encountered while living and traveling in Asia. Debuting in Orlando, Florida in 2011, Hawkers has been on the move, opening locations throughout Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee.
The Hawkers’ Way centers on its “from-scratch-only kitchen” offerings, focusing on seasonal small plates, salads, noodle soups and rice dishes with Pan Asian influences. In fact, many of the recipes were passed down from the founders’ families.
We sat down with Senior Development Manager Dominic DeVuyst to see where the brand is heading in the new normal and how it is helping change the Asian food game.
Give us a snapshot of the brand?
The Hawkers Asian Street Food brand is centered around being an experiential opportunity to bring the community together over great food, great cocktails and great conversation. We bring that experience to life by building locations that are heavily focused on the style of atmosphere and vibe every detail of each location will provide. Hawkers transports guests to the streets of Asia, without ever having to leave their city. Every detail is measured in how a guest will experience that detail through one (or more) of their five senses. When you walk into a Hawkers restaurant, you become part of the experience.
What type of consumers are you targeting?
Our target audience is comprised of adventure-seeking, food-loving, fun-craving people who love experiencing new things. The Hawkers consumer knows good food when they taste it, but more importantly, they know a great vibe when they feel it.
How does the overall design cater to what today’s consumers wants?
In such a crowded restaurant landscape, consumers want to have a unique and authentic experience when dining out. Restaurants need to be transparent, and guests want to see their food being prepared and cooked. Our restaurants have an open kitchen design that puts the heart of the kitchen—the woks—on full display.
The sounds, smells and sights that come from watching food be cooked in an authentic wok are like no other. They transport you right into the streets of Asia in a way that can’t be replicated at home. The open kitchen concept, coupled with the custom neon signs and eclectic wallpaper, push the vibe of each restaurant to take on its own personality and create an amazing experience for guests.
The Hawkers consumer knows good food when they taste it, but more importantly, they know a great vibe when they feel it.
How have you adjusted in this new landscape?
Prior to COVID, about 75% of our restaurant sales were from dine-in guests, and the bulk of our efforts were specifically put into elevating the dine-in experience. When all of the restrictions hit, our sales model was flipped to a heavily takeout-based concept for the time being, which ended up creating unforeseen bottlenecks and inevitably forced our teams to focus on executing a very different guest experience.
In addition to working with our operations team to implement a seamless curbside pickup experience, we are now heavily factoring in the importance of offsite dining in the planning and building of our upcoming locations. We are planning for and executing everything from dedicated takeout windows, exclusive takeout spaces within the kitchens and back-of-house, and we have even reorganized our training program to heighten the level of education our team receives within the takeout sphere of opening a new location.
What kind of conversations are you having today with your employees? Customers?
Safety and sanitation have always been an important pillar in the Hawkers scope, but now, more than ever, our team members are facing new situations daily that require on-the-spot decision making with a strategy that keeps safety paramount, above all. Because of this, our team is going through additional extensive training to receive CDC-approved certifications in pandemic safety. This “new normal” has also been an important lesson for our team members in quick pivots.
Typically, Hawkers prefers to plan every detail out to great extent—we are a detail-oriented brand, it is what we do—however, this year has been full of moments where a quick pivot is not only helpful, but necessary for the company’s survival. This ability to pivot to a new strategy quickly, while also maintaining our company mantra and our brand integrity is a huge part of the “new normal” our team is now implementing.
What is your short-term strategy? Long-term?
Our short-term strategy is actually a huge part of our long-term strategy as well. Early on in the pandemic, our team banded together quickly to outline multiple strategies for company stability. In those strategies, our No. 1 priority was, and will continue to be, guest and team member safety. Through a short-term focus, we will continue to put financial, operational and strategic resources into ensuring guests and team members feel safer at Hawkers than anywhere else. That short-term strategy lends into a larger long-term strategy as we continue to build out new locations with additional safety features in play.
On a long-term spectrum, we are shining a bigger spotlight on space size, space layout and any other factor that may lend to possible capacity limits and/or service limits, should anything similar to this pandemic happen again in the future.
Today’s consumer wants to have a dining experience that they can rave about and share with their friends and family.
What is the best piece of advice you can offer on how to deal with what is happening right now?
Transparency, transparency, transparency. We are in a world where nobody knows who or what they can trust because of an ever-chugging news cycle and constant information overload across social media. In a time like this, it is critical to focus less on the fluffy marketing ploys and focus more on staying transparent and honest with your audience. Keep them updated on the changes you are making, the steps you are taking, to keep their safety and well-being in mind first and foremost. Always be ready to answer questions, but stay a step ahead answer your audience’s questions before they even realize they want to ask. That’s the key.
Is there a location that shows how the brand interacts with the community?
Frankly, all of our locations do a really great job interacting with the community and its guests, because it is something our team prioritizes. As we grow and open more locations, it is inevitable we will eventually be labeled a “chain restaurant” on paper. But one of our main priorities is maintain the “community spot” vibe in each of our locations.
We want the community of each Hawkers location to feel like their location is a special destination, only available to them. In order to do this, we participate in many community-driven events, partner with community-based non-profits, and we launch multiple neighborhood-specific campaigns that are special to that location throughout the year.
Talk about your restaurant design.
Most of our locations were existing spaces that were converted into a Hawkers restaurant. Because each space does not start as a “vanilla box,” it lends to a unique feel fueled by reusing as much of the existing structure as possible. Exposed block walls, concrete floors with flaws, and fire risers in the corner of the space are all elements that get our design team excited.
Take us through your construction and design strategy.
The kitchen, expo and bar areas typically drive the initial design, due to the engineering and layout of the restaurant, especially if it’s an existing space. After the design is complete, we review the plan for value engineering opportunities and provide recommendations to reduce construction costs. One of our most trusted partners, Interplan, has been a truly great asset to our team, and they help us convert the design into construction drawings that will be submitted for permitting.
Give us a rundown of your market’s layout.
Most of our locations are primarily found in the southeast and are now starting to run up the eastern seaboard. We have six locations in Florida (two in Orlando, two in Jacksonville, one in St. Petersburg and one in Delray Beach), two locations in North Carolina (Charlotte and Chapel Hill), one in Atlanta, one in Nashville, and we are soon to open our DC metro area location at the end of 2020.
We want the community of each Hawkers location to feel like their location is a special destination, only available to them.
What’s the biggest issue today related to the construction side of the business?
We have struggled to find a strong subcontractor base in certain markets, which has led to increased construction costs and caused delays on projects.
Tell us about your sustainability initiatives.
In terms of company stability and sustainability, we are implementing short-term and long-term strategies that will ensure the future of Hawkers as the landscape continues to change post-pandemic. In terms of environmental sustainability, one of our main focuses across the development and construction team is the use of reclaimed materials in each of our new locations.
We always try to use existing materials—whether they are found within the space already, or even found in cool spots around the city. We have even gone as far as heading to a local “junkyard” to find some cool reclaimed steel, wood and more. We love the idea of reusing materials, because it is not only better for the environment, but it lends an extra element of history and character to the space.
What opportunities do you see moving ahead?
I believe there will be a significant amount of second generation spaces available, and it will present a great opportunity for brands that are willing to adapt. From a brand perspective, there will also be a lot of market share for the taking, so it will be up to the existing restaurant brands to get creative in their marketing and messaging, as they work to claim the open market share.
What trends are you expecting?
There will be a clear shift toward enhancing takeout, curbside and drive-thru capabilities of restaurants across all verticals. But with this trend will also come a higher audience callout for more environmentally friendly ways to execute off-premise dining. Although this is the industry trend, it makes me question if it is sustainable and I believe the consumer demands a great experience and product.
What is the secret to creating a “must visit” location today?
It is all about the full experience. Today’s consumer wants to have a dining experience that they can rave about and share with their friends and family. A restaurant cannot only focus on food, they cannot only focus on service, and they cannot only focus on atmosphere. They have to focus on all three. At Hawkers, we call it “the vibe.”
What does today’s consumer want?
With or without the pandemic in play, consumers are looking for a unique experience that will lend to creating lifelong memories. It is no longer just about the food. Consumers are looking for an experience that they can share with their friends and family, but they are also looking for an experience that they can continue to talk about with their friends and family after they leave the restaurant.
Furthermore, now that the world has experienced a global pandemic, consumers will be looking for heightened safety measures across the board. Restaurants must be transparent about their practices and stay honest with their guests.
What is the biggest item on your to-do list?
Reduce the overall cost of construction so that it’s more sustainable for growth of the brand.
What makes Hawkers Asian so unique?
We shine a new light on a cuisine that is commonly misunderstood in the United States. In Asia, street food is top tier dining, because the hawker stalls often have the most authentic and detailed recipes in the country. Hawkers aims to not only make Asian street food accessible to a wider audience, but our brand also spotlights the intricacies of true Asian flavors.
There is nothing wrong with Americanized Asian takeout—we love orange chicken just as much as the next guy—but Hawkers aims to show a wider audience what authentic Asian street food is really like. Additionally, our brand pairs all of that authentic flavor detail with an experiential atmosphere that serves to transport a guest directly into the streets of Asia.
The Asian street food experience is special because it engages all five senses, either separately, or sometimes all at once. Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste. Every Hawkers Asian Street Food location serves to engage those senses in the same way.
Describe a typical day.
We have a small team and are usually juggling multiple projects in various phases of development or construction. My goal every day is to positively impact each of our projects, which allows me to switch between phases and apply pressure on items that are critical to staying on schedule or budget.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I really enjoy being part of a team that works through adversity with a positive attitude. We all push towards the same goal, and it’s to design and build an uncompromising restaurant that’s true to the Hawkers brand.
Best advice you ever received?
I’m not sure where the advice came from, but it greatly influenced my approach to managing a project. They related Pareto’s (80/20) Principle to project management, simply stating that 80% of the problems are consequences of 20% of the causes. So I apply most of my attention to navigating the major hurdles of a project and that allows our team to focus on the challenges we face daily.
Best thing a client ever said to you?
A meaningful compliment directed toward the team as a whole—that we are an extremely professional group. Some projects take years to complete and it will test your vendor/contractor relationships during challenging times. Being respectful, professional and tactful in all situations is an important aspect of a successful project.
How do you spend your down time?
When the project demand is lighter, I like to reflect on completed projects, review situations and cost overruns and how they could have been avoided. As an avid soccer fan, I also love to spend my down time cheering on Orlando’s MLS team—Go Lions.
Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.