Hey Hey Drinks: A Complicated Journey to Boba Land
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Traditional Boba Drinks Made with a Cocktail Like Flair
signature drinks including the Hey Hey: royal milk tea, boba, flan, caramel, house creme
As you stroll down LA’s iconic Sunset Blvd, you may be drawn to the live music and laughter of Hey Hey Drinks. The boba hotspot’s radiant energy extends a warm comforting glow, centered around the unmatched feeling of community and home. The established cafe reflects hard work and planning, but the genius behind Hey Hey wasn’t always the boba mastermind he is today. We took the time to meet with the owner of Hey Hey Drinks, Chris Kwok, and below you will find his awesome responses to some of our questions and lots of information about his journey to boba land.
Q: Why did you start Hey Hey?
I started Hey Hey because I wanted a place that offered a more social environment with culturally rich beverages with the same focus and flair as cocktails. I saw that the industry had turned drink shops into public libraries and co-working spaces, so I wanted to offer the community a place to just play and connect. Since specialty coffee shops, tea houses, and bars were all excellent in their own way, I wanted to bring some of those key elements together in Hey Hey, from spatial design to menu, music, and event programming.
What is your background and how has it brought you to today?
Having gone to boarding school and living in a dorm in college, I always treasured the novel and casual magic that happened in common rooms. There was always a playfulness that occurred there, whether it was intellectually stimulating conversation/debates or just listening to someone jam out on a guitar. As I got older and worked as a management consultant working with Fortune 500 companies, I realized those moments were few and far between, almost non-existent. This desire for open community became the catalyst for coming up with the Hey Hey concept. Initially I went to school for Architecture and my desire for spaces and how people interact within them has always been very important to me. I saw that many drink shops were designed with similar elements which helped me shift the paradigm and do more installations that would serve as ice breakers for people to meet more naturally. I also greatly benefited from the corporate training I received from designing efficient processes, to working with vendors in a professional manner, and most importantly the ability to adapt and pivot to more advantageous situations.
Why did you decide to leave the consulting industry? What was your pivotal movement?
I loved what I was doing and was pretty good at it. But as I was climbing the ladder, I looked at my bosses and realized that wasn’t the life and path that would fulfill me. I vividly remember one night I was at Kinko’s late into the night preparing reports for a big client presentation the next day and returning to the hotel room after. I just realized I’ve given enough years to know that this was not how I wanted to invest my life and work. Even though it was much higher risk and less compensation to leave the career I was in, I felt led to build something to serve the community in a way that didn’t fully exist yet, another way to combat loneliness as our cities grew more disconnected while digitally more connected. Lastly, I wanted to showcase Asian and culturally popular beverages in an artisan, high quality way that was branded to speak to the current generation and hip neighborhoods.
What are your plans for the future? What are you looking forward to or planning for – any big changes? What is your mantra for surviving and thriving during this time?
Like any startup and successful enterprise, adapting and pivoting - being honest and quick to identify and stop doing things that don’t work and test things that might. The key is to take on problems like food when you’re hungry. Look at each problem as a way to get stronger and better. One key thing that’s resulted from this pandemic is how much we’ve improved our delivery from process to packaging to the technology and platforms we use. Another is utilizing the down time, since we have shortened hours, to tend to areas of the business we haven’t before. Overall, I’m just very grateful we’re still able to keep the lights on, serve people delicious beverages, help add some joy into people’s restricted lives, and have a healthy team. We also took the opportunity to launch our Pay It Forward Campaign where people have the ability pre-purchase drinks for first responders. Since launching the program in April, we’ve already seen over 500 redemptions from healthcare workers.
What is it like to be an Asian American business owner during this challenging time for the country?
For me, the biggest thing is to be friendly and proactive in reaching out to other minority business owners to build a good peer relationship: one that is supportive and encouraging, at the same time, maintaining strong relationships with vendors and non-minority businesses. Relationships are everything. Also it’s on us as leaders to do the right thing, and do good things for people and communities while we have the power to. These things can range from educating your guests, your team members, etc. Some things that we’ve done during this time are providing context for our multi-cultural drinks, including civil rights cards with all our deliveries, and starting a book club series focused on anti-racism topics where we sponsor drinks for that club.
How did you feel signing the lease agreement when you were committing to Hey Hey?
Finding a space and ultimately signing a lease was probably the most challenging part to starting up Hey Hey. There were many milestones and signing the lease was definitely one of the biggest ones. I looked for a space and attempted to sign many leases over the course of 3 years. Thankfully I had a great mentor and expert who helped me along the process to figure out what I needed to consider from space, to infrastructure. When I decided on Echo Park, there was some anxiety there because the neighborhood was far from where it is today, and that was only a few years ago. I also am fortunate to have an understanding landlord that recognizes my success is his success. We are able to communicate and make collaborative decisions toward a common goal, and of course paying rent on time helps!
At any point, did you look back or have regrets?
No regrets, but it is definitely much more challenging.
Do you have a destination for Hey Hey? Is there a specific goal you are aiming to fulfill?
If people get closer and find the human connection that’s becoming hard to find in this digital era, then mission accomplished. Beyond that, I hope Hey Hey becomes the go-to community hub, known by young working professionals as the spot they can call their second home that is cool enough to bring dates to and surpass the stigma that boba and non-alcoholic beverages are for younger people only. I would love to showcase regional niche market beverages and popularize them to the level of Arnold Palmers. I’m looking towards either opening smaller concepts or becoming an advisor to guide others looking to open similar concepts or even just helping future operators startup their brick and mortar store.
How did you feel shifting from finance to creating artisan boba?
Pure excitement mixed with a little fear of the unknown. Because it’s so easy to focus
on all the day to day operations, I sometimes have to remind myself of what’s been accomplished and enjoy the awesome team around me and all the people that get to enjoy beverages that are popular in other parts of the world.
What was it like entering the boba scene without any former experience?
One of my personal requirements in starting Hey Hey was to make sure I paid some dues for a few reasons. One, I needed to know if I was capable of making this work and whether it was just a fun side hobby that would get old fast. Two, I needed to know core aspects of how to operate a cafe. My journey took 3 years before being able to build Hey Hey. Back in 2014, I took a 3 month leave from work to work at the most popular boba shop at the time - Half and Half Tea House - while developing my business plan. I worked for another 2 years after that. I then resigned in 2016 from consulting, having signed my first lease. Unfortunately, the space fell through because of unforeseen building problems and was left with an indefinite period of unemployment. I used that time (which ended up being 1 year) to work at places from Japanese crepe shops, Taiwanese dessert shops, and finally ending my research at Philz Coffee. I learned invaluable hands on experience at each place which allows me to give the best to all our Hey Hey guests. While I didn’t have much prior experience, I utilized professional consulting experience to go in and learn the business inside and out, make adjustments, and build something special.
Tell us about your experience pitching to landlords/developers.
It’s a humbling experience, especially when you have no business history and no brand presence. There were many instances where I was bullied and also cast a side, I couldn’t even get a meeting with some of the developers. I’m thankful for these because it forced me to tighten up my concept, focus my pitch, learn how to speak their language, and get to the point where I was extremely confident about what Hey Hey is about. The good thing about not being able to compete for spaces that are only looking for big chains is that you find hidden gems in culturally rich neighborhoods that have an exploratory palette, such as Echo Park.
As an Asian American, what was it like diverging from a traditional and highly regarded career to paving your own unconventional path?
I’m very grateful and fortunate to have such supported parents and great examples of leaders to follow within my immediate and intermediate family. I’ve always been encouraged to be passionate about something, and the schooling I received trained me to have a strong work ethic while finding purpose in the work I do. Although it wasn’t an immediate agreement in my switching career paths, once they realized the work and focus I put into manifesting this dream, I was given all the tools from emotion to physical to put me in a position of success. I’ve always felt like my previous experiences have helped me get to where I am today and each experience was a learning point.
What are your thoughts on the recent increases in racism and attacks due to the unreasonable association between our appearance and COVID?
I expected it because there’s a lot of ignorance, misinformation, and fear in this world. I think the best way is to combat it with education, being assertive, and supporting Asian leaders. It’s equally important that the Asian community supports one another and builds each other up, having that mentality even in the face of competition.
Have you ever come across racial discrimination (during your childhood, career, etc.)?
Yes, I think the first time I really experienced it without knowing until later was playing the “I’m Chinese/Japanese/Korean, I’m confused” game where you use your fingers to slant your eyes up and down. I was taught that game by a non-Asian and went home to show the game to my parents thinking it was funny. I can’t imagine what they must have thought, but I feel disgusted thinking about it. I would experience slights here and there when people would assume that I was naturally obedient and subservient because I’m a quiet Asian. One of the biggest discriminating times in my life was during SARs, everyone at school had a joke about it or assumed I had it because I was Asian.
Growing up was there ever a culture clash? Do you still experience it now?
The culture clash that was food specific was probably being made fun of by people who don’t understand the type of ethnic snacks I grew up eating - things like dried squid or seaweed instead of your typical fruit snacks and gushers. When it came to beverages, I think it was pretty easy for people unfamiliar with them to try and enjoy since the textures were similar.
We see that you have a program that helps first responders. What inspired you to help the community in this way?
Being a first responder is such a critical role and they were on the front lines of fighting the pandemic, risking their lives. I know many people understand this and have tried to find a way to help. Our giveback program was designed to give others the opportunity, primarily those who still had jobs and could work in the comfort of their own home, to take quick action and provide some form of break and joy in a first responder’s day by pre-purchasing drinks for them. To me this was a quick win-win situation that could be effectively rolled out.
You included cultural drinks on your menu. Could you tell us the story and significance behind that? Have you been influenced by other cultures in your journey as a business owner?
I just think there’s so much history baked into the everyday drinks that people grow up with drinking around the world and also was fascinated by how similar some of the drinks were although completely separate. For example, the Vietnamese soda chanh is basically like a mojito because of the components except that there’s no alcohol and there’s a carbonated aspect to it. Despite the differences in cultures, there’s often much similarity because at the core humans have the same needs, desires, and cravings.
Chris Kwok’s boba and business journey started as nothing more than a craving for delicious drinks, enjoyment of community spaces, and a decision to leave a corporate job, yet it has blossomed into something that is so so much more. Hey Hey truly embodies the spirit of dedication and passion.
Chris Kwok was such an inspiration to work with and talk to and we hope his story and his lessons reach all ears! Make sure to visit Hey Hey Drinks and support their Pay It Forward Campaign! Hasta la vista!
Jia Food Blog
Visit Hey Hey Drinks!
1555 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
Takout: (213) 278-0689 | Delivery: Doordash, Postmates, Grubhub, UberEats