Ever dream of leaving your comfortable but perhaps confining corporate job to start your own business? Then meet Christopher Kwok, who left a well-paying corporate consulting gig to open up a tea house in Echo Park in late 2017.
Kwok spent about three years preparing himself to open Hey Hey in a former discount store that has been renovated to reveal brick walls and high wood ceilings. In a city already thick with fast-food style tea and donut shops slinging tooth-achingly sweet boba drinks, Kwok’s refined tea house with a laidback living-room vibe has earned praise for artistically crafted bubble teas concocted with ingredients like herbal jelly, sea salt creme and almond pudding made in-house from scratch.
The 33-year-old entrepreneur recently took time off to talk to the Eastsider about his first year in business and what life has been like since ditching the corporate life.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was raised in Los Angeles but spent my adolescent and early adult years in the East Coast going to school and starting my career at a Fortune 500 company. Every holiday I would come home and my first stop would be to hit up a teahouse, known to most as a boba shop. These decadent dessert drinks and milk teas that I grew up with just didn't really exist outside the LA bubble, or at least of equal quality.
I was already exploring the idea of opening Hey Hey when I moved back to LA and was dead set on setting up shop in the Arts District, Downtown. Well, we all know how that played out! I ended up living there instead and (thankfully) opening in the burgeoning Echo Park. This was definitely a scenario where not getting what you want was for the better.
The day I saw the space we're now in, I spent some time sitting at a local coffee shop and walking around the lake. During that time, I knew Echo Park was the right place for Hey Hey. I loved the interweaving of locals and visitors. It gave the neighborhood a family feel mixed with a creative entrepreneurial spirit open for new tastes and experiences.
How did you apply the skills you learned a big corporation to running a small business?
Working professionally gave me the discipline to prioritize and execute tasks. It seems like a small thing, but it really is the most critical skill that I've applied in building something tangible. Creating proposals, pitching to clients, and managing cross functional teams played a huge part in getting with large developers to listen and articulating my concept. It's also been extremely beneficial implement structure and processes in a small operation like Hey Hey. Right now small changes and good processes have a large impact in every way.
While I'm very grateful for these transferable skills I've been able to apply building Hey Hey, there were key things that I failed to prepare for or just overlooked. I underestimated how personally I took things. When you put something out into the world, especially for purchase, it becomes a magnet for all kinds of feedback. I was surprised to find that areas like business analytics and strategy happens after things are running, and the level of effort and testing it takes to attain sustainability and consistency. I'm still in this phase! These things have definitely accelerated my appreciation for the scalability and ecosystem of corporations and a next-level respect for other business owners.
How has the local community received the tea shop?
A key aspect of Hey Hey are our installations that invite people to engage with. One way I'm trying to build community is through these shared activities and there's been quite a lot of engagement. Our wishing light, analog news feed, and photo wall are filled to the point where I need to think about new installations to create. People are now calling in to see what shows, workshops, and popups are happening for the week and are on the lookout to plan us into their schedule.
One of the most gratifying and heartwarming things is when more and more of our regulars turn into experts on our menu, describing all the different mocktails and teas available, what the different toppings taste like, what they would recommend, what you can do in this space. It's clear that when people want coffee, they go across the street, but for alternate thirst quenching drinks, Hey Hey is the spot. Families and groups recognize our later hours and are showing up for group games, finding comfort in our living room vibe. Seeing our guests' expression of receiving something better than they had imagined is a feeling that's hard to beat!
Things you’ve learned in your first year of business?
In the words of 21 Savage, A LOT. I've found that people love to share what they're about. Anytime we pose a question or prompt, a blank canvas quickly gets filled with words, drawings, illustrations. We host multiple events a week and there continues to be a consistent flow of inquiries about sharing something here. I just want to lessen the barriers for those who want to share and those that want to experience.
Convenience is king, especially in this era where things come to you. I've learned that no matter what industry, most daytime activities consist of some time of work or errand. It's challenging to add another destination to your schedule, especially when parking is so difficult. This is why Hey Hey now offers Amazon Locker as a service so that you can pickup or drop-off your packages on your way home or after doing a little bit of work here without worrying if it will be stolen or misplaced. Win-win.
Any fun stories or notable moments from the shop over the past year?
There were two instances where an artist residency came to be from a guest playing our in house piano. We ended up finding a way for them to play here consistently with their friends. We have this analog status feed on our wall where we pose a question. One question we had recently was "What does Echo Park need?" and a response to that was "Pupusas". Coincidentally we had just locked in an Salvadorian chef who specializes in making pupusas as our next food popup!
Any plans for Hey Hey’s expansion? Or exciting additions to the Echo Park location?
Last year we loaded up on giving the community a lot of music, but this year we've been switching up the experiences and offering a lot more popup experiences from food to retail. My goal is to showcase talented and passionate people with great products and provide the opportunity for excellent novel experiences for people unexpectedly walking by. It's going to take constant adjustment as I feel out what the neighborhood wants and am ready for some hits and misses. Whatever will bring people together with an opportunity to build meaningful relationships, I'm down for.