Just like the interesting cast of Sanrio characters, some 50 in number, the operators for the new Hello Kitty Café container store at Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, California, are a dynamic team.
With Sanrio’s help, Urania Chien, Charlie Chien and Allan Tea created the first Hello Kitty Café container store and it is setting traffic records for the Orange County shopping center. The iconic white cat is the spirit behind the retail concept. “We love Hello Kitty and what the Sanrio stands for– friendship, ‘small gift, big smile’, and all things super cute. We felt it was time to launch something of a lifestyle brand for the generations of fans who grew up with her,” says Urania, one of the three founders and managing partners of the concept. Urania, her husband Charlie and Allan visited Hello Kitty Cafés in Asia and were so enthralled with the operation that they got together with Sanrio several years ago and designed a plan to bring Hello Kitty to California. “I have loved Hello Kitty since age 5,” says Urania. “Her message of ‘you can’t have too many friends’ is a timeless motto that transcends generations. Aside from the Hello Kitty love, I find that many life experiences are shared over food, thus making the union of the two something super sweet.”
According to the team, it has been an amazing journey working with Sanrio and sharing a vision for bringing something that would be “impactful and alluring for fans.” They chose the Irvine location because the café pop-up container store is such a unique concept, they felt it needed to be in a location that offered both traditional retail and expanded outdoor lifestyle center amenities. “We designed this container concept from the ground up. We wanted to do something really cool with the pop-up concept and make a big splash with our fans. The Hello Kitty Café team chose the Irvine location with Sanrio’s approval. We literally all sat down, sketched out the functionality of the space and kept going from there. Everything was custom built and fabricated. It was fantastic to see the finished product from the original sketch concept,” says Charlie. Additionally, this versatile team operates the Hello Kitty Café Food Truck that traverses southern California. The operators are considered as “owner/operator” in partnership with Sanrio.
Each of the founders comes with life skills and education that round out their ability to run retail businesses. Allan Tea opened his first restaurant, Capital Seafood, when he was 21 years old. Interestingly, it too is at Irvine Spectrum Center. He has since opened four other restaurants in Orange County with his siblings. His work with his family members goes back to when he was 13 and worked weekends with his brothers James and Scott at their Hawaiian BBQ company. According to Allan, “In order to be a good entrepreneur you have to be resourceful, and building relationships constantly, as you never know who you will work with.”
This philosophy may have something to do with how he, Charlie and Urania have become friends and founding partners at Hello Kitty Café. They originally met while dining at Allan’s well-regarded Chinese restaurant. Allan and Charlie share a passion for cars, and through their Saturday morning car rides a friendship was developed. Six years ago, Charlie asked Allan if he wanted to become a partner in the Hello Kitty Café concept.
Charlie’s family immigrated to the United States in 1984 as entrepreneurs. After college at Berkley and receiving his MBA at University of Southern California, Charlie worked in the corporate supply chain world. Then at age 21 decided he wanted to do something on his own. “Whether it was fate or dumb luck, I’ve never looked back. I’ve been involved in manufacturing, logistics, and opened an indoor playground facility with Urania,” he says. “I would always stroll the retail shelves to see the products I manufactured or logistically helped place there. I would say that this Hello Kitty Café concept uses a culmination of skills learned to date.”
Urania has a background in manufacturing and operations. The indoor playground they opened was “Built from the ground up by us and it has taught me many lessons about retail,” she says.
According to the threesome, they share most of the res- ponsibilities at the Hello Kitty Café. Urania focuses on creative and new product development. Allan’s restaurateur background places him in the center of food and retail development. Charlie enjoys the back-end corporate management of the business. “We are really good about dividing up the workload,” says Charlie. “We know who is really good and who has certain skill sets and we let them run with it.”
The Hello Kitty Café founders have strong advice for entrepreneurs. “I know it sounds cliché, but you’ve got to love what you do. If you are enjoying yourself while doing it, it’s not really work,” says Charlie. “I got my first start with support from my family. I wouldn’t be here today if not for them. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs… it was the daily dinner conversation ever since I could remember.” Urania adds, “Perseverance is definitely one of the qualities that any entrepreneur must have. Working for myself is the hardest job I have ever done. There are no clock out times or breaks, but if you have a great idea and believe in your concept, you will find a way for it to succeed.” And for Allan, it’s all about exposure: “I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. My parents ran businesses for over 25 years. I learned firsthand the different skill sets it takes to manage a business.”
Asked what advice they would give to new entrepreneurs, the trio offered this list:
Persistence. Good things don’t happen overnight. Anything that is worthwhile takes time to build.
Work smarter not harder, processes and systems will bring you efficiency and maybe within the first year you will be back to a normal sleep schedule.
No matter what you do, you have to believe in the success of your brand. Not just yourself, but you have to motivate your employees to believe in your vision.
The pop-up café container store is slated to be at the Irvine Spectrum Center for one year but the three won’t give away their expansion plans just yet. “Stay tuned!” they exclaim.
Originally from Specialty Retail