Christopher Kwok, 31, explains how he went from working at a big consulting firm
to preparing to open a modern-day tea house in Echo Park
By CHRISTOPHER KWOKIt’s every Chinese parent’s worst nightmare; I told them I was going to quit my prestigious job at a Big Four consulting firm to open a cafe, and the first step in getting there was to work for one. Needless to say, they were worried. But I, on the other hand, was never more ready to take the leap.
When I was 9, I sipped my first virgin pina colada. I still remember the sweet coconut slush blessing every taste receptor in my mouth. Even at a young age, I was excited to create beverages; something that became evident when I began combining Gatorade, soda, and Powerade to make the ultimate energy elixir. Let’s just say I thought of myself as a “drinkkelier” – the sommelier of drinks – and yes, I just coined the term.
I grew up going to Asian teahouses with my parents and coffee shops with my friends. I loved the products of one and the ambiance of the other but I was always forced to choose between the two. After years of frustration, I set out on a journey to combine both elements.
My first mistake was thinking that becoming a barista would be a walk in the park. For the record, I was rejected a total of 73 times; 3 times from the same place. Eventually, my persistence was rewarded ever so handsomely with an unpaid trainee position.
None of my previous work experience prepared me for what was to come during this three-year journey as I brewed, poured, and mopped my way through two Asian teahouses, two specialty coffee shops, and a Japanese creperie. From making boba-egg pudding-milk tea drinks to washing dishes to dealing with picky customers – I entered a new world of entitlement and immediate unfiltered feedback.
I quickly realized that where I went to college and the brand name firms I worked for didn’t matter. In fact, these things worked against me. I had to start from the bottom while being subjected to a wide range of, let’s say, creative management styles.
Despite having a business degree from a top 20 university, working with Fortune 500 companies, and gaining invaluable insights by immersing myself in the industry, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the challenges of opening a business in Los Angeles.
I quickly realized that securing a storefront isn’t as straightforward as merely signing a lease in a good location. I had to pitch my concept to landlords/developers/brokers and compete against other prospective tenants for a chance to pay rent – it felt like I was in the Twilight Zone or Shark Tank.
When I finally signed a lease after two years of searching, and getting my heart broken twice with failed deals due to shady landlords and building issues, I began my relationship with the city. I would have never thought getting my project approved would be dependent on a plan checker’s mood, or that my project would delay by months based on the responsiveness of various departments. Regardless, I pulled out all the stops to woo and impress them. It would have been a true romance had the city not been playing hard to get.
Despite the twists and turns, I can proudly say that HEY HEY will open in the 1500 block of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park in September 2017. I’ve been dreaming of opening day when guests drink delicious “whet” beverages in a space designed to make everyone slow down and make eye contact. There will be no Wi-Fi. Sorry. But there will be other forms of forgotten entertainment, such as, conversation, laughter and imagination.
As any small business owner, I have grand ambitions and real limitations. I am simultaneously both thrilled and terrified. I don’t know if this will grow to be on every block or if it will just be a costly time consuming project.
It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve spent the last 3 years just to get to the starting line – but I’m ready to go. See you at HEY HEY. Third round’s on me.
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Jesús Sanchez, Publisher
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