Amidst the most hyped shopping weekend of the year, in the middle of Irvine’s premier shopping center, one culinary attraction drew fans from farther away than any sale could. The appeal of its mascot spans 40 years and two generations.
Hours after the initial surge of its most hardcore fans descended upon the attraction, a small truck parked in the middle of Irvine Spectrum Center, a crowd continued to replenish itself around Hello Kitty’s latest adventure: a cafe.
Earlier in 2014, Hello Kitty celebrated its 40th anniversary. The Japanese American National Museum currently hosts an exhibit dedicated to the feline friend introduced to the world in 1974 by Japanese company Sanrio. A month-long scavenger hunt that spanned 11 Los Angeles restaurants had fans seeking collectible pins. The first ever Hello Kitty Convention, at which the cafe’s truck made its debut, was held at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Hello Kitty Cafe is currently making its rounds in food truck form, serving as the torchbearer of HelloThe cafe’s mobile offerings included hot chocolate, a three-piece donut box (strawberry, vanilla and chocolate glaze with red chocolate bows), a five-piece macaron box (yuzu, strawberry, mandarin orange, oolong tea and green tea), a box of limited-edition mini cakes and a bow-shaped water bottle from Hello Kitty Con.
According to Allan Tea, one of the cafe’s three business partners, the peak wait time for the truck was 45 minutes around 1 p.m. Parked in between Forever 21 and Old Navy, a few yards away from the carousel, the truck commanded a line that extended approximately 150 feet to the nearby curb.
Truck is a bit of a misnomer, if you ask Urania Chien, who along with her husband Charlie and Allan, is one of three business partners that comprise Hello Kitty Cafe.
She refers to it as a mobile pop-up shop.
Although the food truck nomenclature is familiar, the vehicle itself is a Mercedes Sprinter passenger van. Intended to fit 12, the interior was modified with counters to hold boxes of confections. True to Hello Kitty style, the exterior is wrapped in a pink graphic vinyl. Along the top, the graphic mimics white icing with sprinkles. The bottom, a menagerie of Hello Kitty cupcakes, macarons and confections. On the hubcaps, pink bows.
The cafe has been three years in the making, with plans to open a Southern California location next year. According to Chien, the concept will be based on a European cafe and bakery, serving a variety of cakes and confections as well as salads. A location has yet to be selected. However, according to Tea, the truck’s Irvine stop is just one in a series, with events planned for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and even New Year’s, time willing. Tea also said that, leading up to the launch of the brick and mortar location, the truck will also be making tour stops through to Las Vegas.
The venture is a partnership with Sanrio. The parent company takes care of all the design and branding, while the Chiens and Tea submit food designs for approval.
For Chien, the cafe is a labor of love. After she moved out at 18 to attend UC Irvine, her mom has kept her room more or less the same as a time capsule of Hello Kitty merchandise. Her earliest item, a notebook from 1984, was given to her only two years after she was born. To this day, she is still conflicted when she sees her daughters use her stationery from 2005, a veritable collector’s item.
When asked if she was a superfan, like those who’d driven long distances to form a line even before the truck’s 10 a.m. opening, Chien hesitated.
“Sometimes I dress like Hello Kitty,” she said. “But not that often,” she quickly added.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he said, before pulling up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo. I was incredulous.
It was Hello Kitty’s face, complete with her signature pink bow, wrapped in a gold-and-red snake with its fangs out.
The doubts I held seconds before about how committed Allan Tea, Chien’s partner in the cafe venture, actually was to the lifestyle he was selling rapidly dissolved.
Naturally, when he first told me he was indeed a Hello Kitty fan, I was skeptical. Reducing an interest to stereotypes about gender is something I aim to avoid, but the men in line were largely there incidentally. All the ones I spoke to were there in the company of their wives, girlfriends and young daughters, all of whom were the ones choosing what to order.
Even as a casual fan, Nikki Abejon recalled her first Hello Kitty item: a pencil box. In the middle of our conversation, Nikki noticed that the line was empty and immediately dashed over to order three of the bow-shaped bottles of water. When she returned, Nikki told me that her friend, who was a bigger fan, was out of town and had told her to buy bottles.
Unsurprisingly, for her husband Drew, Hello Kitty is merely a novelty.
“It was around when I was a little kid. My sister had it,” he said.
Naturally, children, especially young girls, were abound in line, impatiently tugging at their parents’ sleeves.
“Of course my 4-year-old would drag me here,” said Esmeralda Hernandez, whose first Hello Kitty item as a child was a stuffed toy. Christine, her daughter who convinced her to buy a box of donuts, will grow up to tell the same story.
Her husband, like Drew, deferred the conversation to her. A distanced proximity to Hello Kitty was a recurring theme among the men I talked to. The female feline has always been around men, but accepted? Not quite.
Even as Allan reassured me that both men and women can embrace it, I remained skeptical, given the men I had talked to.
Even his partner said that it’s easier for her to run the business having daughters, admitting that if she had boys she wouldn’t be able to be as involved. She mused that it may have something to do with Hello Kitty’s lack of a visible mouth and hence, her communication from the heart.
Regardless, Tea is confident that Hello Kitty will continue to resonate with fans and, given the overwhelmingly positive reception the truck has had, the cafe has a bright future.
“It’s amazing to see one brand bring so many people together in a positive way.”