In 2010, Kaleb Harrell ’04 and Wayne Yung ’06 got a call from their friend, Allen Lo, that would change their lives. He had found a spot on Mills Avenue and wondered if they were interested in opening a restaurant.
“We said, ‘Hell no, you’re crazy,” says Harrell. Within a couple of weeks, Yung told Lo he was in. So did a fourth friend, Kin Ho.
“At that point I had a lot of FOMO [fear of missing out], and I was like, ‘I guess if Wayne’s doing it, I’ll jump in,’ ” says Harrell.
The crazy idea paid off. Fast forward 12 years, and the four friends have successfully opened 12 Hawkers Asian Street Food locations spanning six states in the South, with three more under construction. In June, their flagship restaurant was recommended in the inaugural Florida Michelin Guide — solidifying the success of their venture.
The name is a nod to “hawker” street food stalls found in Asia, and the menu features authentic, boldly flavored foods from Malaysia, China, Thailand and Hong Kong.
From Best Friends to Business Partners
Harrell and Yung’s friendship began in the halls of Winter Haven High School in Florida, over 25 years ago. The two met as first-year students and quickly bonded over an appetite for adventure that later evolved into an entrepreneurial spirit. They both graduated from UCF, where Harrell studied finance and Yung studied management with an entrepreneurship track.
“Being around a community of entrepreneurial minds solidified what I wanted to do after school,” says Yung. “It helped me overcome the fear of failure and believe it was achievable to start my own business.”
After graduation, Harrell and Yung worked in real estate until they quit their jobs to launch a marketing company, landing clients like Disney and UPS.
“It was the best learning experience,” says Harrell. “That’s where we really cut our teeth on entrepreneurship.”
After agreeing to open the restaurant, Harrell and Yung got to work with Lo and Ho. Yung has family roots in China and Vietnam, Lo was raised in Malaysia, and Ho grew up in Hong Kong. The team wanted to bring inspiration and flavors from across Asia into their restaurant.
“The idea is to transport our guests to the streets of Asia, and make them feel like they’re somewhere different for about two hours,” says Harrell, who was honored with the UCF College of Business Entrepreneurial Alumni award this year. “It comes down to the neon lights in the building, the music we play, and obviously the biggest part of it is really great, authentic street food that’s served on the streets of Asia today.”
Many recipes on the Hawkers menu come straight from the families of the restaurant’s co-founders. The dumplings served at Hawkers are the same dumplings that Yung’s family shipped by the case to the best friends in college.
“That recipe has been in our family for generations,” says Yung. “And a lot of Allen’s family members were actual street hawkers in Malaysia, serving the exact same recipes we serve in our restaurants today.”
When the first Hawkers location opened, it was with a team of eight: the four founders and their four girlfriends, now their four wives. While their girlfriends served tables, the founders ran the kitchen line and built a restaurant company.
“That’s the short version, without all the blood, sweat and tears,” says Harrell.
Within a year of opening, the four founders set their sights on expansion. On the day the second Hawkers opened in Jacksonville, Florida, it immediately beat the original location’s sales record.
“After that year, the four of us felt that we could overcome anything that got thrown at us moving forward,” says Yung. “That year really grew our confidence about being able to scale this concept.”
The team also built a wood shop run by Yung and Ho, where they create almost every piece of furniture in the Hawkers restaurants.
“Outside designers and architects didn’t understand our vision and what we wanted for our restaurants,” says Yung. “Bringing all that in-house just made sense.”
By 2030, Harrell and Yung hope to open 100 Hawkers restaurants.
“We’re looking to be the household name in casual Asian dining nationally,” says Harrell.
In the meantime, you can often find the friends enjoying their favorite Hawkers dishes. Yung raves about the pan-fried pot stickers and roti canai, a Malaysian flatbread.
Harrell likes the Korean fried wings and the curry laksa, a ramen soup with a Malaysian curry base.
“I’m not going to say you can’t go out and find the same dishes anywhere, but what you can’t find is those dishes, that menu, in the environment that we’ve created,” Harrell says. “I don’t really think there is something that’s comparable to us.”