During the chaotic days of COVID, restaurants had a choice to make, says Kaleb Harrell, cofounder and CEO of Hawkers Asian Street Food.
The first option was to cut production, implement lean operations, and “limp through to the other side.” The second was to double down, maintain infrastructure, and use the pandemic as an opportunity to gain market share. Hawkers selected the latter, and now, the brand is reaping the rewards.
In 2021, sales climbed, consumers returned to dining rooms, and for the first time in a few years, the concept was able to complete a more optimistic budget. Entering this year, January was a rough start due to the spread of omicron, but from February through at least July (the time of this writing), Hawkers exceeded its projections each month.
This summer, the brand found itself hovering around a 30-plus percent sales growth year-over-year and raking in guest review scores of 4.8, up from 4.2 prior to the pandemic.
“It’s been an interesting transitional year,” Harrell says. “Knock on wood, it feels like we’re finally out of the pandemic era. … [It] really took us from a cool emerging concept to what I would consider, and with all humility, an industry-leading concept.”
Hawkers is the brainchild of four best friends—Harrell, Allen Lo, Wayne Yung, and Kin Ho—who traveled together, only to come home to Orlando and a less-than-enticing dining scene. Lo in particular, who was born in Malaysia and serves as Hawkers’ brand chef, grew up in restaurants and always wondered why menus touted General Tso’s while family sit-down meals were more authentic. The main goal was to bring that Asian authenticity to the greater public.
The initial plan had nothing to do with scalability. The friends purchased a second-generation space in 2010 during the Great Recession and opened with a 75-item menu. One week into the venture, there were lines around the building, which left the cofounders stuck in the kitchen without much time to experience the restaurant as they originally envisioned. In fact, the overwhelmingly positive response led them to rethink long-term potential.
“We enjoyed it the best we could,” Lo says. “We’d work through our day, we’d clean the kitchen, and we’d crack a couple of beers at the end and talk about, ‘Wow, what just happened? We just got our butts kicked today. How do we make this better?’ It was kind of organic. We were creating and streamlining a restaurant business. Before we knew it, we were like, ‘Hey, we have something special,’ and had the conversation: Do we want to give up our day jobs and put in the effort to grow this?”
Hawkers owes its name to the many vendors in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries that hawk their food in open-air markets. Lo says the brand’s opening coincided with a rise in popularity of travel TV stars like Andrew Zimmern, Anthony Bourdain, and Samantha Brown who visited these places and highlighted family recipes.
The menu comprises dim sum, rolls, street skewers, wings, barbecue pork, housemade kimchi, salad, wraps, rice and curry, noodles, soups, and desserts. Best-sellers include Roti Canai (Malaysian flatbreads with a signature curry sauce), Korean Twice Fried Wings (smothered in garlic gochujang and topped with peanuts, sesame, and cilantro), and Chinese BBQ Pork Baos, which are wok-fired with hoisin sauce and caramelized onions. In addition to a selection of Japanese whisky and sake, the beverage menu features classic Western cocktails with an Asian twist such as the Malaysian Mule, Margari-Thai, and Lemongrass Mojito.
In the past dozen years, Hawkers has expanded to 13 locations in seven states, and now the objective is to reach 100 restaurants by 2030. The cofounders wanted to look beyond their typical three-year strategic planning increments. With stability, sustainability, and scalability now in place, Harrell and his partners felt Hawkers was ready to look 20, 30, or 40 years out.
The company prides itself on keeping infrastructure growth ahead of unit development. As of July, Hawkers had enough resources to support double the number of restaurants. That said, Harrell recognizes the company will have to ramp up swiftly in some areas—especially middle-management roles like area directors and regional chefs—for the chain to meet its 2030 goal.
“We’re really looking at redefining our category, and we’re looking at changing the landscape of what casual Asian dining means for the country,” Harrell says.
All units are company-owned. Harrell won’t totally rule out Hawkers franchising in the future, but there are no such plans as of now. And as he points out, the brand has extremely high standards.
“When you think about it, a 4.8 guest review score on a multiunit chain concept is extremely high. So taking that maniacal approach—it’s already not easy; it’s already difficult given the tiers of management we have—but then adding in a layer of franchisees … I don’t know, but I think it would be difficult to do that without seeing the guest suffer,” Harrell says.
As Hawkers looks toward the future, the chain is reimagining store designs to meet changing consumer needs. The brand’s latest opening in Virginia includes the its first takeout window, to satisfy an off-premises channel that mixes 25 percent, an increase from 12–15 percent before COVID. Previously, carving out takeout/delivery inside the restaurant was more of an “operations will figure it out later,” approach, but now the brand will be more intentional, Harrell says. In fact, Hawkers went through all its locations to see how it could rework floor plans for the sake of convenience.
Throughout the pandemic, the casual-dining chain has attempted to transfer its experiential offering into off-premises packaging, including interactive QR codes with a playlist.
“What we’ve seen as guests come back in is that on-premises has come back to where it was pre-pandemic, and off-premises has stayed there,” Harrell says. “What that tells me is, people have decided they’re not making a choice of either/or. They’re saying, ‘Yes/and.’”
Lo says Americans’ growing interest in travel has elevated the consumer appetite for international flavors. In the coming years, the goal is for Hawkers to leverage that attraction and become a household name in the Asian casual-dining sector.
“I’m excited because I’m always wanting to push the envelope and really showcase a little bit more,” Lo says. “But we’ve got to walk that tight line to make sure we’re not wasting our efforts and throwing something on the menu that’s just going in the trash because no one’s buying it or ordering it. I’m excited to really push the envelope and showcase some cool stuff.”