May is AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, and as Asian-American owned business, Twrl Milk Tea is celebrating all our AAPI retail and restaurant partners with the Twrl x AAPI Uplift program.
Our guest blogger this week is Eric Fan, a customer fan of Twrl Milk Tea who recently became our intern.
Old meets new. That is what being an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month means to me. Where centuries-old cultures and customs meet a new life in a new home. Where our aging parents have cared for and raised a new generation, ensuring our success through their support, one plate of sliced fruit at a time. Where old-fashioned ways of thinking meet new ways of life. Like a boat, the sturdy, resilient hull that is my Asian heritage combines with the curious and ever-changing wind that is Western individualism, bringing me to places I could have never gone before.
To me, this philosophy shines through in Twrl Milk Tea. A centuries-old drink brought into a new market, in a new format. Traditional teas, roasted and aged for months, combined with novel food science techniques including pea milk and nitro-infusion. I love how the founders, Pauline and Olivia, are AAPI entrepreneurs tackling a fresh, original concept.
I vividly remember an Asian buddy of mine telling me a story about his uncle. This uncle of his had loyally worked at a company focused on making pet food for all of his life. He was paid well and lived comfortably with his family. But on his deathbed, he pulled my buddy over and told him his biggest regret: being too scared to quit his stable job and start something for himself. He regretted not taking the big leap to take his share of the American dream, to build something that was uniquely him and something that he could be proud of.
All of our lives, we are told to just get a good job and stick with it, find a good partner, build a good family, and live a good, happy life. We are told to become programmers, engineers, and doctors. We are told to put our heads down and stick to the status quo. Why create more trouble for yourself when you are already doing just fine?
This AAPI heritage month, we are celebrating and interviewing AAPI entrepreneurs who are taking old concepts and breathing new life into it with an American influence, entrepreneurs who break old molds and trailblaze new paths for future generations. They are the new generations of AAPI business owners and leaders, many of them children of immigrants, who are building their American dream.
I had a wonderful opportunity to interview Twrl’s AAPI business partners who have products that are just as innovative and culturally-inspired as Twrl Milk Tea, and stories just as emotional and inspiring as Twrl’s. In this post, we would like to put the spotlight on a couple of amazing businesses, and what it means to be an AAPI entrepreneur to each respective business owner(s).
Kagawa-ya Udon (San Francisco, CA)
In the heart of San Francisco, Kagawa-ya isn’t your typical tempura udon joint. Husband-and-wife duo Sean and Katherine have taken traditional Japanese techniques and added a bit of their own flair to it. Of course, the menu has some items that you’d expect - the classic Kitsune Udon and forever-delicious Nikutama Udon, but Katherine says that her husband’s Korean heritage and her Taiwanese heritage have given her inspiration when developing the restaurant concept. “We often find ourselves taking dishes familiar from our culture and imparting traditional Japanese ingredients to create a hybrid menu item,” she describes, “we’ve even taken classics from SF like Clam Chowder and put our KGY twist on it, by making a delicious umami-packed Clam & Leeks Udon.” I think this restaurant embodies the AAPI experience of taking Asian traditions and adding hints of flavor from the many other cultures in the American diaspora. It’s truly a melting pot - a place where American soups, Japanese noodles, and Taiwanese-inspired Twrl Milk Tea can all merge into one.
Baba’s House (Oakland, CA)
Baba’s House is serving up something more than just food: nostalgia. Named after Co-founder Jenn Lui’s late father, Baba’s house is “a glimpse into our childhood, our heritage and our experience growing up as an Asian America kid in the 80s and 90s,” describes co-founder Alan Chen. With dishes like the Wagyu Bowl, a modern take on the classic gyudon, and Heart & Soul, their take on a Filipino picadillo, Baba’s House pays homage to the comfort dishes that so many AAPI kids grew up eating. This appeal to your inner child goes beyond food. Baba’s house also sports a store selling essential Asian snacks and candy - from milky White Rabbit candy to delightful crispy hawthorne wafers - and several mahjong tables and a bar. Alan also described the importance of the Cantonese culture that defines the aesthetic of the restaurant to Jenn. “Mahjong and Hong Kong movies were heavily a part of Jenn’s upbringing,” he recalls, “Her first language was Cantonese as first babysitter was her grandpa who only spoke Chinese. He would put on a movie and play 13 cards with her. Every weekend, it would be festive sounds of mahjong tiles shuffling in the kitchen and she loved sitting next to her parents to learn how to play.” But, for Alan and Jenn, Baba’s House is more than just a place to relish in nostalgia - it’s a place to center a community around. “Our heritage, more than ever before, has helped shaped Baba’s House to what it is today,” Alan said, “We wanted to build a legacy for ourselves and our family, share nostalgic stories and spark creativity.” Hopefully, Baba’s House will become a source of nostalgia and cultural pride - just like the White Rabbit candy and Mahjong tables that inspired the restaurant in the first place.
Cudos For You (Palo Alto, CA)
Nothing is more quintessentially American than a neighborhood ice cream store, where kids and adults alike relish in a delightfully creamy treat after a long day. For co-founder Lisa King, building such an area was her vision, and Cudos for You, a small storefront selling an unusual combination of thick custard and mini donuts, was born. Still, things weren’t easy. “Our first frozen custard machine was expected in April or May, and we didn’t get it until mid-June, so it delayed us by four to six weeks,” Lisa said. “Even the cups we ordered in early June, we didn’t get them until late August. For our initial opening, we had to buy temporary cups that weren’t printed.” But, for her, being an AAPI business owner means having tenacity even when the situation is looking rough, a trait she credits to her parents. “Growing up as latchkey kids to immigrant, working parents, my husband and I have a strong work ethic embedded in our DNA,” Lisa said, “My mom at 77 is still working! Without that ethos and the support of our families, we wouldn’t have even embarked on such a venture.” She also thanks the community for supporting her through tough times. “As an AAPI woman starting a business during COVID, I definitely had my concerns especially since I am the face of the business,” she reflected, “But the community has been super supportive, kind, and encouraging, and it is for them that we come in everyday to spread some sweet joy.” Even though Lisa and her husband, Hansel, were born and raised in the U.S, the story of Cudos seems to reflect a common immigrant AAPI experience: even through hardship, AAPIs endure, and eventually carve out a place for themselves while creating a symbiotic relationship with the community on their path to find the “American dream”.
Delicious Chengdu (Temple City, CA)
Even before we partnered with Delicious Chengdu, we knew we were going to be a match. The spicy, savory, mala Dan Dan Noodles that the modern Sichuanese restaurant is known for and the cooling, creamy Twrl Milk Tea make a perfect pair. But it was only after we started working with them that we realized how awesome the business actually is. Co-founded by Chef Yu over 35 years ago, the restaurant has recently been refined and revamped by two AAPI entrepreneur friends: Mike Chen and Lena Zhang. They’ve expanded their menu, added an in-restaurant marketplace, and introduced new technology to improve service speed and quality. For them, their role as AAPI business owners is to create a community where both AAPI and non-AAPI alike can enjoy the food of their heritage. As Mike and Lena put it, “our hope is to a cozy, neighborhood joint where people gather together and bond over delicious, nostalgic, and authentic Szechuan specialties.” Sounds delicious to me.