Hawkers Asian Street Fare ranks in the top 50 food and beverage companies on this year’s Inc. 5000 list with sales growth of 310% from 2012 to 2015, during which the independent opened its second unit. With average checks of $14 and $20 at lunch and dinner, respectively, the Florida casual-dining brand reported revenue of $6.9 million in 2015 with two locations and is on track to reach $10 million in revenue this year. Since four friends launched Hawkers as a “passion project” in Orlando in 2011, the concept has entered Jacksonville and St. Petersburg and aims to continue expanding in the Southeast. Here’s a look at how Hawkers has managed growth.
Challenging the casual-dining segment
Although the fast-casual industry is booming, co-founder Kaleb Harrell says he and Hawkers’ other partners—Allen Lo, Danny Ho and Wayne Yung—decided not to go the fast-casual route for two reasons: one, because they believed consumers will never stop wanting a full-service experience at dinner, and two, because they thought casual dining needed a revamp. Hawkers “is not casual dining in the sense of what our parents knew as casual dining,” Harrell says.
The concept serves a menu of Asian street food-style small plates in convivial settings complete with open kitchens, Asian newspaper-covered tables and shelves lined with Asian ingredients. At Hawkers, customers don’t “just sit down, order one entree, have the same flavor for an hour and leave. Instead, they have 10 different dishes with 10 different flavor profiles, the palate is continuously being excited, and they’re continuously being influenced by the food, the interior and all these different things to create a whole experience.”
Harrell says another factor that Hawkers uses to add to the experience is what he calls “Easter eggs.” Menus and table signs include information on chopstick etiquette, “Street Food Rules” and wok cooking to give customers “Oh that’s cool, I didn’t know that” moments, Harrell says.
Authentic and approachable
Over half of the menu is made with recipes provided by Lo, Ho and Yung, whose families hail from Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and Vietnam. The menu also includes Asian-style American options—such as Hawker’s Tacos and curry mashed potatoes—to increase approachability, although Harrell says consumers are more adventurous than they thought. For example, for Valentine’s Day two years ago, Hawkers offered chicken heart skewers, a common street food that’s not so prevalent in the U.S., so Harrell was surprised when the special sold out.
Raising the bar
The St. Petersburg restaurant debuted in March with a new feature for the concept: a full-service bar. While the previous two units served beer and wine, they weren’t large enough to meet liquor license requirements, so the group found a bigger space for its third location. The bar serves Asian-inspired cocktails such as a Malaysian Mule and a Salted Plum Collins. In addition to giving customers more beverage options, Harrell says the bar eases waits for consumers by giving them a spot to hang out before their table is ready.
If you build it, they will come
Harrell says urbanization has allowed Hawkers to grow in smaller Florida markets where the food scene is thriving and consumers are looking for more local concepts. There’s a consumer mindset of, “‘I’m going to invest in my neighborhood … and redefine what’s happening here,’” Harrell says. “And that whole societal shift has helped us.”
Hawkers plans to reach 10 units by the second quarter of 2018. A fourth location is set to open by the end of this year in Neptune Beach, Fla., and the company is continuing to seek sites in revitalized urban areas and smaller markets, such as Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, Fla. Harrell also says the company is in talks to open its first unit outside of Florida in Atlanta. Other initiatives on the horizon include delivery—which the brand has already launched at select units via UberEats and Amazon Restaurants—along with catering and online ordering.