In this installment of our Meet the Merchant series, we talk to Andrew Han, owner of Kouign Café located in the Chinatown district of Vancouver, Canada. Han’s nostalgic childhood memories of food, flavours, and a favourite childhood story helped shape his vision for this Wonderland inspired café – a place where the modern yet mystical experience is just as special as the fusion of flavours on the menu. Han shares with us his unexpected journey to becoming a pastry chef and entrepreneur, his experience opening the café during the pandemic, and his pride in creating a business that reflects his queer and Asian identities.
Clover: Hi, Andrew! Can you tell us how you got into the business of pastry making and opening your own shop?
Andrew Han: I’ve been doing this for about the last 11 years. Prior to going to culinary and pastry school, I was working for the government and hated my job. I just wasn’t built for sitting behind a desk in front of a computer (which, ironically, is what I’m doing now as a business owner the majority of the day). I started saving money and thinking about going back to school, I just wasn’t sure what for. At that time, I was baking as a hobby for family birthdays and things like that. It was something I enjoyed and a nice way for me to gift sweets and treats to my loved ones.
I was at home one day watching the Food Network and a close friend called me and said, “Do you realize every single time I call you, you’re watching the Food Network?” He asked if I had ever thought about going to culinary or pastry school and opening up my own place. I laughed it off because it had never crossed my mind. But the next day, I was at my desk job and a light bulb went off. I thought, this is kind of perfect for me. It’s a way to take my science and art backgrounds and incorporate them into one thing.
I went to school, did really well, and then I started off in the industry as an executive pastry chef, which was really lucky. I was offered a job at an award-winning Italian restaurant. From there I went on to other jobs and ended up working for an old friend from elementary school. She had her own vegan restaurant in Vancouver. Making pastries there, I was able to really dig into my roots and incorporate the flavors that I grew up with into my recipes. That’s when I started getting a lot of attention. I even ended up doing a Food Network Christmas cookie challenge.
My friend always knew I wanted to have my own space, and after 5 years of working together she said, “If I don’t push you out, you’re never going to do it.” So I took about a year off and traveled a bit. Then I did a pop-up in Chinatown where I introduced the White Rabbit and the Lunchbox cookies, which are still on the menu at Kouign Cafe. The whole city came to that pop-up, it was insane. My social media blew up and people were lining up down the block. The whole space was filled with people waiting for cookies in the morning. From there, everyone was pushing me to open a business since there was such demand. I spent a long time looking for a location, which had to be in Chinatown because that’s where I grew up and where a lot of my flavor memories come from. It’s a very nostalgic and magical place for me. One of my favorite books when I was a kid was Alice in Wonderland. That’s where the name Kouign Cafe [pronounced “queen”] came from, if the high tea party from Alice in Wonderland happened in Chinatown.
Clover: You opened in August 2020. What was it like starting a business during the pandemic?
Han: The location became available at the end of 2019, and I managed to postpone signing the lease until March 2020. I was so immersed in doing research and teaching myself everything as a first-time business owner that I had no idea what was happening outside of my computer screen. I wasn’t watching TV or paying attention to the news. I didn’t know people were getting sick around the world. I wasn’t really talking to anybody either, I was just trying to get started. I signed the lease in early March, just weeks before the pandemic really broke.
I tried for about a month to get out of my lease and it didn’t look like it was going to happen. I think it was my sister who said to me, “You are not just some anonymous person trying to start a business right now. You worked really hard to gain a following, and people are waiting. They will come and support your business. You just need to do it.” She was right. I started thinking, we’re going to be OK and I just have to be smart about it. So I had to rip my business plan apart, put it all back together and figure out how to make this work.
Clover: What changes did you make in that moment when you realized you had to pivot?
Han: I didn’t start this business with a lot of money. A majority of it was from business loans and whatever cash I had in my savings. So I was acting as my own general contractor and interior designer. I had spent a lot of time sourcing decor, designing the service counter, and picking out equipment. It was such a huge project. I had done all of that research prior to the pandemic, but now dine-in was not the priority. So I pivoted to minimal high impact pieces of decor, serving people at the door, and figuring out how to make this as special an experience as possible without in-store service.
Clover: Tell us about your specialties, the White Rabbit and Lunchbox cookies. What inspired the recipes?
Han: They were two of the items I offered at the pop-up and became associated with my name. The White Rabbit cookie is a blend of wheat flour and mochiko, a rice flour that has a more chewy, squishy texture. Before baking, we top the cookie with white rabbit candy, a popular Asian candy that’s milky and creamy. When I would get cranky as a kid, my mom would buy me a bag and they would always cheer me up. One of my favorite childhood memories is going grocery shopping with my mom and getting white rabbit candies, and Chinatown baked goods as well.
The Lunchbox cookie is a spicy peanut butter cookie with Chinese sausage, pork floss, nori, and toasted sesame seeds.
Han: People are hesitant because it sounds kind of crazy. It has a really good, intriguing balance of sweet and savory. The best description someone ever gave me — and I fully agree — is that it’s like that Willy Wonka bubble gum that tastes like a multi-course meal. The more you chew it, you get all these different experiences happening in your mouth. That cookie is inspired by a typical lunch box that my mom would pack for me when I was in school. It would have fried rice with pork floss and nori, Chinese sausage, and it might have a peanut butter cookie. The Lunchbox cookie is love in a delicious parcel and is one of our top sellers.
Clover: How did you wind up choosing Clover and what do you like about it?
Han: I first encountered Clover when I was dining out and we used it to pay for the meal. I thought it looked cool and modern. One of the big reasons I looked into Clover was because it’s very on-brand for us. It felt like it would fit in our space and look clean and minimal, not old-fashioned. I wanted to find something streamlined and affordable that would easily sync all my info in one place. Other systems didn’t look as good or offer the same all-in-one integration, so I thought let’s try Clover and see how it goes. I’m glad I did, because it makes things a lot easier for me as someone who has no experience with the administrative side, or at least doesn’t enjoy it.
I use the Clover Flex, which is easy to carry around or leave at the front door where we take orders. I also use Homebase apps for scheduling, payroll, labor costs and that sort of thing. And I subscribe to the Virtual Terminal so I can access records when I’m not in the store.
Clover: What are your plans for the business looking ahead to a potential post-COVID future?
Han: I’m hoping to push forward and let people know we’re here and encourage them to have a more intimate experience and enter the store, even if it’s just to take something to go. I’ve been working on a plan to get plexiglass dividers to bring the business indoors and offer a few seats. As time has gone on, I’ve become more comfortable with how to look at the numbers and assess where we are in terms of our expenses. Clover has been really helpful with that, especially using Homebase to look at a breakdown of labor costs. I’m also investing in signage, because we haven’t had any besides the sandwich board since we opened.
The end goal was always to have a dine-in cafe where we would offer high tea on the weekends by reservation and provide more service. I enjoy the art of actual dine-in service and providing a full experience for people. That’s part of what this whole menu and the Kouign Cafe concept is about, that Alice in Wonderland feeling of escaping your 9-to-5 grind by being transported to a magical time and place.
Clover: How has your queer identity influenced your career and the trajectory of your business?
Han: My journey into coming out didn’t really happen until my late 20s. Throughout my 30s, I have fully embraced it, and I realized that it’s a part of me that I am very proud of. I think that it does make us special because despite the varying levels of privilege that exist within the community, being LGBTQ+ means you’ve lived through and survived a lot of difficult experiences that don’t exist for others. If you’re going to like or love me, you need to know everything about me, and being gay is a big part of my story and my life experiences that make me who I am. I stand for the LGBTQ+ community; I’m very proud of it and how far we’ve come over the years. It’s part of my brand. I try to bring attention and awareness to the community and our cause in my social media whenever I have the opportunity or feel compelled to say something. I’m really proud to be a gay Asian man living out his dreams, and to promote visibility for the LGBTQ+ and gay Asian population.
Read more of our Meet the Merchant stories for real-life stories of small businesses in action all over the country. Want to be featured in this series? Fill out our questionnaire, and if we can include you in a future interview cycle, we’ll send you an invitation!
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