ORLANDO, Fla. – Kaleb Harrell said his early days of opening Hawkers Asian Street Fare with his four friends was “best time I never want to have again.”
“It was awesome. It was crazy. It was hectic, it was brutal,” Harrell said. “It was tough. Very big, heavy lift. But we all did it. We were all stronger through it.”
Harell did not start out his professional career planning to open a restaurant. He was working in marketing after graduating from the University of Central Florida. In 2010, his friend Allen Lo, who is now the Brand Chef for Hawkers, called him up and asked if he wanted to open a restaurant.
“(Allen) says, ‘Hey, I drove by this spot on Mills (Avenue). We happen to have a connection to the owner of the building and the business. I think we can get into it relatively inexpensively,’ Harrell recalled. “’ What would you think about starting the restaurant?’ and I said ‘Absolutely not. No way. What are you, crazy? I don’t want to start a restaurant, No way, man.’”
Lo was able to apply a little peer pressure to Harrell when he got their mutual friends Kin Ho and Wayne Yung on board with opening the restaurant. Together, the four friends then went about opening the first Hawkers location.
“The next thing I knew I was learning to cook on the wok and running the line. Is it was awesome. I would never... I wouldn’t trade those early days for anything. That was honestly the most fun was the very beginning,” Harrell said.
Even though Harrell is the only one of the four founders that is not of Asian ancestry, he said he does not feel like an outsider in that culture.
“I grew up around this culture,” he said. “From when I was 13 till now — but, especially 13 to 17, kind of in middle school, high school with Wayne and his family — growing up with that family, I didn’t realize at the time how impactful that was on learning and immersing into a completely different culture than my own at such a young age. It really became like a norm to me.”
Despite his familiarity with the culture and the cuisine, Harrell said he gets a different feeling from Hawkers than his co-founders.
“For the other guys, what they get out of Hawkers is a feeling of nostalgia. What they get is a feeling of ‘this is my home,’ he said. “For me, what I get is a sense of travel. And I get a sense of kind of adventure. And that was what I got when I would go to Wayne’s house, and I loved it.”
It’s those feelings of comfort and adventure that the group tries to bring to Hawkers. The recipe appears to be a success as they are celebrating 10 years in business and getting ready to open another location in Dallas, Texas bringing the total number of Hawkers restaurants to 12.
On the latest episode of Florida Foodie, Harrell shares some of the misadventures from the early days of Hawkers. He also talks about the work culture at Hawkers and his approach to the hospitality industry.
Please follow our Florida Foodie hosts on social media. You can find Candace Campos on Twitter and Facebook. Lisa Bell is also on Facebook and Twitter and you can check out her children’s book, “Norman the Watchful Gnome.”
Florida Foodie is a bi-weekly podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that takes a closer look at what we eat, how we eat it and the impact that has on us here in Florida and for everyone, everywhere. Find new episodes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you download your favorite podcasts.
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