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Hawkers co-founder leaves legacy of hospitality, hard work, friendship

Danny “Kin” Ho, 46, died Jan. 5 following a brief battle with a rare and acute form of leukemia.
 
Hawkers co-founder Danny "Kin" Ho with his wife, Ying Duong, daughter, Everhett Ho, and son, Emmet Ho.
Hawkers co-founder Danny "Kin" Ho with his wife, Ying Duong, daughter, Everhett Ho, and son, Emmet Ho. [ NICK LEVYA | Hawkers Asian Street Food ]
Published Jan. 17|Updated Jan. 17

“The thing about any partnership,” says Kaleb Harrell, “is that it requires a willingness to do whatever needs to be done for the betterment of the team.”

And of the close-knit co-founders of Hawkers Asian Street Food, four friends whose interwoven friendship and family ties span decades, Harrell says Danny “Kin” Ho was the fiercest team player of all. And he will be fiercely missed.

Ho, 46, died Jan. 5 following a brief battle with a rare and acute form of leukemia.

He is survived by his wife, Ying Duong; daughter, Everhett Ho, 7; son, Emmett Ho, 19 months; parents Tim and Nim Yi Ho; a sister, Maggie Ho; and a brother, James Ho.

His culinary legacy includes 15 Hawkers locations in seven states, a number set to grow in the next several years.

Born in Hong Kong, Ho emigrated to the States with his parents at age 2, settling in New York City’s Chinatown, where his father worked as a fishmonger.

“Kin grew up around food,” longtime friend and Hawkers Brand chef and co-founder Allen Lo said, and when he and his family relocated to Orlando in 1999, they purchased a building on Mills Avenue and opened Chinatown Restaurant & Market.

“It didn’t take Kin long to go from fishmonger to restaurant manager,” Lo said of the hardworking Ho, who would cross paths with his future friend and business partner long before they began spending time together.

Lo’s wife, then his girlfriend, worked up the street alongside her two sisters at Trung My Oriental Market, which was owned by their family. Ho would come in every day, between the lunch and dinner shift, for a newspaper and a soy milk.

Hawkers co-founder Wayne Yung was the sisters’ cousin. Harrell, Yung’s friend since childhood, grew up alongside the family as well.

Several years later, Ho and Lo would reconnect through a common friend, socializing often after work, though Ho usually wouldn’t stay out past a drink or two — until the night Lo’s sister-in-law, Ying Duong, joined them.

“That time,” Lo recalls of the night Ho met his future wife, “Kin stayed all night.”

Over the years, as the friends became family, frequent travel — often centered around food — was a favorite pastime. Six-hour drives to Atlanta “just for lunch and takeout,” says Lo, were not uncommon. Trips to Malaysia, Thailand, elsewhere, says Harrell, intensified their interest in finding the next great meal — and eventually the Hawkers menu.

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But it was Lo’s mother-in-law, a culinarian whose noodles and dumplings were served in Orlando-local restaurants, who would become the primary facilitator.

“She knew this person who wanted to get out of a restaurant on Mills,” Lo explains. “We felt like the city was missing something and wanted to draw on our experiences.”

The building, it turned out, was the former Chinatown Restaurant & Market.

“Kin and his parents had stepped out of the business years earlier,” Lo explains. “They moved back to New York, but Kin loved Orlando and stayed.”

Strange, wonderful kismet brought Ho back to the old restaurant, which the partners purchased in October 2010 and renovated themselves. The first Hawkers location opened in March of the following year.

“We all did everything,” Lo says, but Kin, an introvert, was upfront about his desires. “He said, ‘Put me anywhere. I’ll do anything. But please, don’t make me talk to guests.’”

“He used to joke that we locked him in the kitchen,” says Harrell, the Hawkers CEO. “He’s a quiet guy, but probably the hardest worker of all of us.”

“Kin was only quiet in new situations with new people,” counters Lo, inspiring amusement in his friends. “Once you got to know him, he wouldn’t shut up.”

Boldness wasn’t at all beyond Ho, who five years ago on New Year’s Eve learned a friend was planning a first-time marathon run. He’d had a few drinks, his partners remember, and declared that he, too, could go the distance.

“We were like, ‘It’s in five months,’” Harrell recalls. “’There’s no way you’re doing it.’ And he signed up on the spot, having never run competitively in his life — "

“Or ever!” Lo interjects.

The partners laugh loudly, even as they grieve.

Ho didn’t train until the last five weeks, but that didn’t stop him from finishing the Chicago Marathon in less than five hours.

“He never looked back after that,” says Harrell, who became a runner because of his friend. “We formed a running club, and that was something really special that he brought into my life.”

One month before his passing, Ho logged a personal best time in a local half-marathon.

There were many good times in his professional life as well.

As the Hawkers brand proliferated, he and Yung sought to resolve the delays caused by outsourcing the stylish furniture they favored by founding a company to make it themselves.

Hutch Studios, an open-source woodworking firm, started out by doing all the millwork for Hawkers.

“We wanted to have control over the restaurant-opening timelines,” says Yung. “But it grew to have lots of other clients, too.”

Hutch has done work for several notable venues, including Tampa’s tony new Kōsen and the intricate market stall for Norigami at Plant Street Market.

But Ho was hardly all work, no play.

He loved theme parks. He loved comic books. He loved anime. But most of all, his friends say, he loved his family.

“We all saw a change in him after he became a father,” says Lo. “We already knew he was a gentle soul, but when you saw him with his children, you really saw him open his heart. He was the dad everyone wants — fun at the right times, tough at the right times — but always stable, level-headed, calm.”

He fell in love with daughter Everhett the moment she arrived, Yung says.

“And he wanted nothing more than to have a second child, which happened about two years ago. He was home every night with them. He loved being a dad.”

Ho had that same devotion when it came to work, his partners say, always volunteering for the jobs no one else wanted. His commitments were sacrosanct, whether to the running club or the business, and he worked into his final days, even as the flu-like symptoms he was experiencing began to worsen.

No one realized how sick he was. The shock of his death, swift and sudden, nearly synchronized with his diagnosis, is still palpable, but his friends say it won’t stop them from honoring him at a long-planned company conference this weekend.

“We thought about canceling,” said Yung, “but we talked about it and Kin would not have wanted that. He was way too hard a worker to be sitting around, being sad.”

Though the sadness will be pervasive, his partners have no plans to sit around. Come Sunday night, the long-planned dinner — at which they will cook a Hawkers meal for roughly 50 general managers and executive chefs — will go on as scheduled.

“Kin loved being in the kitchen, and he was really looking forward to it, to being back on Mills,” says an emotional Lo. They are all emotional, as easily moved toward tears as laughter amid their recollections. He knows it will be hard, being three instead of four.

“It’s exactly where he would have wanted to be, though. And we’re going to be there for him.”

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