ST. PETERSBURG — Restaurant openings in St. Petersburg's Edge District have come fast and furious as 2015 concludes. In the first quarter of 2016, another one will open its doors. Hawkers St. Pete, says co-owner Kaleb Harrell, aims to be open for business March 1 at 1235 Central Ave.
So what's a Hawker?
With nothing more than $6.50, the first Hawkers opened in Orlando in 2011, aiming to re-create the street foods found all over Asia, usually sold via exuberant call or chant by sidewalk peddlers (you know, hawkers). Allen Lo, Danny Ho, Wayne Yung and Harrell, who all grew up together, each brought a different expertise to bear in the kitchen, with dishes that seemed like spot-on replicas of street snacks found in Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam and Malaysia/Singapore.
The vibe was fun and young, a stodgy old Chinese restaurant having been gutted and reconceived with concrete floors, corrugated aluminum wainscoting and a bold color scheme. High and low tables were kitted out with stacks of white plates, signaling that this was a sharing-type place.
"From the beginning we had a line around the building," remembers Harrell. "We knew we had a cool concept, but it took us a few years to develop the infrastructure."
A second location opened in Jacksonville in February 2014.
"As far as our expansion pattern, we actually seek out urban revitalizing neighborhoods, and the Edge District in St. Pete exactly fits our mold for that. As soon as we walked into Green Bench we said, 'Yeah, this is home.' "
What precisely resonated with the Hawkers team in St. Petersburg?
"Locals are culturally affluent, social media literate and have an adventurous palate — these are the behavioral characteristics we look for. I sum it up by saying that if you can point out Malaysia on a map, then you're probably a good guest for Hawkers."
Still, this third location has not been without challenges.
The team wanted to keep the characteristics of the building that previously housed Taps and Tequila, but the structural integrity of the building couldn't withstand what they wanted to do.
"We had to rebuild it. It was quite a project," said Harrell. "But we don't want to disrupt the community, we want to be a part of it."
And when it opens in March, local diners can look forward to roasted duck tacos, Korean bulgogi beef and exotic curry laksa and roti prata.
No word on where the next Hawkers will pop up for the four partners, but according to Harrell the learning curve has been steep.
"When we jumped in we had no idea what we were doing. But we love like brothers and fight like brothers. That's what makes our partnership great."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.