“It has been a journey.” That is how Hailey Kwon, the owner of the successful Dots Cupcakes shops, describes the last two years leading up to the opening of her sit-down café in Southern California. When we interviewed her in 2016, Kwon shared her rags-to-riches story of starting a cupcake business with no money and no baking experience. Through instinct, hard work, and the advice of mentors, she built a thriving business with two cupcake shops. Her ultimate dream was to open up a café, a place where people can go to celebrate special moments in life. At the time, she had purchased a multi-unit retail property nearby, financed by East West Bank, and was expecting to open up a café in six months. Little did she know it was just the beginning of a long and arduous path full of lessons.
Dots Café finally had its official grand opening in January of 2018. In addition to cupcakes, there’s a full sit-down menu with breakfast foods, bowls, sandwiches, salads, and signature snacks like fried tamale bites. Customers can dine in or order lunch bento boxes (complete with a mini-cupcake) for takeout.
Kwon designed the space with Pinterest and Instagram in mind, with floor-to-ceiling windows, “just keeping it light and airy so people can take photos,” with plenty of botanical prints and rose gold accents. “I wanted the look of the place to have a California farmhouse look. I wanted it to be fresh,” Kwon says. “I want people to feel happy when they come in.”
“I wanted the look of the place to have a California farmhouse look. I wanted it to be fresh.”
The casual breezy feel of the café belies the sheer grit and perseverance it took to power through the building process. Kwon faced a huge learning curve. The 7,344-square-foot retail center was built in 1970 and needed major upgrades. What followed were hundreds of pages of architectural drawings, countless meetings with city officials and contractors, and issues she had no idea were going to surface.
“We started with a wish list, with a restaurant that was 5,000 square feet, and then we had to take it down to about 2,500 because of all these restrictions that we didn’t know before,” Kwon says.
It took a year just to rewire the electrical system. Then, parking became a big issue. Kwon was three spots short of what was required for the amount of seating in the cafe, and had to file a parking variance, which also took a year. Then notices were sent out to the surrounding neighborhood. If even one person objected, she wouldn’t be able to open the cafe.
One person objected.
“After speaking with him about 12 times, we negotiated, and he compromised by saying that as long as we had a bike rack for the guests, that he would be willing to support us,” Kwon says. That process took six months.
Kwon says she was surprised by how much resistance there was to progress, and she had to get accustomed to rejection. “You can’t take no for an answer. Because 10 people will tell you no, for the same exact question, but that last person who says okay will propel you to the next step—and then you get 10 more no’s,” Kwon says. “I think the difference with me was, no matter what, I still showed up, 100 percent. So even if the answer was no yesterday, tomorrow is a new day, and you just focus on getting another person on the phone that says ‘yes.’ You just keep going.”
“So even if the answer was no yesterday, tomorrow is a new day and you just focus on getting another person on the phone that says 'yes.' You just keep going.”
Along the way, she found little money saving hacks for her business that paid off big, such as choosing the colors for the Dots Café logo. Having many colors is important for social media, so she chose two colors, peach and green, and then lightened each color 50 percent to create accent colors that didn’t cost extra. That way she only paid for 2 colors, instead of four different colors.
“When you’re doing any kind of printing for cups and boxes, you can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, because they’re similar shades,” Kwon says.
Since the café has opened, Kwon has been able to engage with loyal customers in the new space. “We’ve seen so many customers in the last 11 ½ years. Now they’re able to come here, and we’re able to sit down with them, have a cup of coffee,“ Kwon says.
Currently one of her biggest goals is to provide a living wage to employees, with kitchen workers paid just as much as the servers and cashiers out front. She provides incentives for the workers to take responsibility, by promising to raise wages if the business is successful.
“If you really want something to happen, you can really accomplish it. That’s the key, is to show up no matter what,” she says.
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