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East West Lifestyle

Hang & Eat: An Entrepreneur’s Journey from Boba Truck to High-end Seafood

October 18, 2018
Fish dish and a gourmet cup of coffee from The Joint
The Joint, located in the heart of Ventura Boulevard, is a cross between a seafood restaurant and a coffee shop. (Photo credit): Kristie Hang at The Joint

Fresh fish and coffee? Foodie Kristie Hang interviews Liwei Liao from The Joint on his gourmet pursuits.

Who says coffee and seafood can’t mix? If you believe food entrepreneur Liwei Liao, he’ll tell you they go hand-in-hand. Back in 2010, when the social media phenomena of tracking down food trucks was at its pinnacle, there were only a handful of successful trucks that truly made a name for themselves. Along with Kogi, one of the standouts was The Boba Truck, which made it big in part due to founder Liwei Liao. Liao used his knowledge as a civil engineer to design a mobile tea bar that allowed patrons to have a window into the tea brewing process, at a time when boba was starting to pick up in popularity in Los Angeles. Liao, who also had a background in water engineering from UCLA, went one step beyond and elevated his products by using commercial reverse osmosis to obtain pure water for his drinks. He drew inspiration from his native Taiwan and won over patrons with unique flavors, like Fuji Apple Green Tea, that were infused into the tea leaves and not made with liquid sugar. His food truck helped to transform the negative image of the “roach coach.” Despite building a popular truck and adding a brick-and-mortar under his belt, Liao wanted to start his dream food business and sold The Boba Truck to focus on his vision of bringing together his love of fresh seafood and coffee. His passion for catching fish, handling it, processing it, cleaning it, and eating it culminated in The Joint—a beautiful, open, sustainable fish shop, coffee shop, and mini cafe on bustling Ventura Boulevard.

"The Joint brings together my deepest passions: coffee and tea, which started my career, and seafood, which has been a lifelong obsession.”

-Liwei Liao

Liwei Liao, the founder of The Joint, standing in front of the restaurant billboard
Liwei Liao, the founder of The Joint. (Photo credit): Liwei Liao

Born in Taiwan, Liao grew up in Queens, New York, and refers to himself as a self-taught fishmonger. His family had a boat out in Connecticut, and he grew up fishing. From a very young age, his father taught him how to gut and clean fish, which left a lasting impression on him. Liao believes that there’s nothing better than catching a fish yourself and sharing it together at the table with friends and family, especially given how integral fish is to Chinese culture.

“My passion has always been in food, in general. I grew up fishing. This project really sparked when friends and family encouraged me to open up a fish market because I was very knowledgeable and passionate about fish. The Joint brings together my deepest passions: coffee and tea, which started my career, and seafood, which has been a lifelong obsession,” says Liao.

Although seafood and coffee may not seem like two things that would work together, Liao was insistent on having a high-end specialty coffee program at The Joint for his customers. It was important for him to build up his own coffee program, as opposed to bringing in experts from other big cities that already had established programs. Instead, Liao wanted to help build up the local LA coffee scene using local roasters. He subsequently brought on Cafe Dulce veteran Kevan Moscoso to help create and manage The Joint’s coffee program. Using local roasters allowed Liao to play with different flavor profiles to create The Joint’s drink menu.

“If you take a step back, it makes sense. You always want to have coffee at the end of a really good meal. Pike Place, where Starbucks blew up, was in the heart of a market heavy on seafood,” explains Liao. “If you go to Europe, there are lots of open market spaces where they serve coffee right next to their seafood. The concept was right under everyone's noses.”

One of the most difficult parts of running The Joint was that he was essentially running three separate businesses in one. There was the sustainable fish market, the seafood café, and the specialty coffee bar with locally roasted coffee beans. Even with Liao’s successes in the past, opening a small business proved to be quite difficult and filled with unforeseen problems. Although he raised an impressive $10,000 just from Kickstarter, there was a nearly two-year gap from the time the Kickstarter ended and when The Joint finally broke ground. Liao faced a slew of complications with the city and the build, as did two other big name restaurants that were in the same boat. Financially, those years where his space sat unoccupied were a struggle for Liao. There was a sense of uncertainty because he never knew what the city was going to come down on next. Many people assumed that since he surpassed his Kickstarter goal that opening The Joint would be a walk in the park.

Fish dish from The Joint
Fish dish from The Joint. (Photo credit): Liwei Liao
“I used Kickstarter as a way to put my thoughts together. It helped let people know what The Joint was really about since it was hard for people to grasp the concept on how coffee on one side and a seafood market would work.”

-Liwei Liao

“I think Kickstarter can help in the infancy stages, where it can help get some things in place, but in order for projects to be sustainable and 100 percent funded by Kickstarter, it’s hard. They (Kickstarter) also take a large cut of the money,” says Liao. “I used Kickstarter as a way to put my thoughts together. It helped let people know what The Joint was really about, since it was hard for people to grasp the concept on how coffee on one side and a seafood market would work.”

Despite all the setbacks, Liao stuck to his gut about the concept and also doubled down on his belief that the particular section of Ventura Boulevard he eyed was the right place to open, despite it being a dead street.

“When I acquired this space, within the same month, Bluebird Brasserie and Petit Trois signed their lease. Both businesses opened just a few months before us, yet it took two-plus years for all of us to open on this block,” he says. “It just showed that no matter how much money you spend, you just can’t speed things up with the city. There were lots of obstacles. When I got this lease, all the businesses next door had all gone under. It was a dead street. Now everyone wants to move in here!”

Now that The Joint is finally open, Liao has been very hands-on with every detail. Not only did he seek out collaborators, and test and create the food and drink menus himself, he also funded his restaurant entirely with the help of supportive friends and family who believed in him. Liao designed and built all the seating and tables on-site using 150-year-old reclaimed old growth lumber. In addition to the décor, Liao visits the fish market every morning at 4 a.m. six days a week to buy and stock his store. He manages to keep his seafood extremely fresh because he does not have to buy seafood off a list, abide by a certain budget, or have a certain menu to fulfill. Every day of the week, there’s something different, and it’s all curated based on what he thinks would be good to eat.

"It may be the only fish market in the world that doesn’t have a walk-in refrigerator. We bring in whole fish. We process it here. We cut it here. We utilize the whole fish."

- Liwei Liao

Fresh fish display at The Joint eatery
Fresh seafood selection at The Joint. (Photo credit): Liwei Liao

“It may be the only fish market in the world that doesn't have a walk-in refrigerator. We bring in whole fish. We process it here. We cut it here. We utilize the whole fish,” Liao says. “People like to buy filets, but what happens to the trims? The trims are the best part. We figure out how to incorporate that in the menu, if we can. We don’t want to waste anything.”

Liao suggests that his customers come in, take a look at the glass seafood case, and have a small bite. One of the most popular things on the menu is the market choice. It lets customers pick the fish they want, and then the chefs cook it for them served with two sides.

“I want people to try things, and when they’re done, I want them to be curious enough to buy it [to take] home and try to make it for themselves,” he says. “And while they’re at it, grab a coffee from the coffee bar!”

After more than a decade in the food industry, Liao has some words of wisdom for those looking to get into the food industry: “Be ready for a rollercoaster ride. There’s going to be really high highs and low lows, especially with funding and money. Make sure money executes correctly, and put your vision from paper to reality. You’ll have customers that will come in and give their two cents and opinions, not knowing the struggle. It’s so easy for them to criticize and shoot someone down without knowing the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here, especially nowadays with social media.”

Now that the opening is over, the hard work continues. Liao has a list of items in the works for The Joint. In addition to adding beer and wine to the menu, there’s also wholesale in the future. He’s also working on having his own roastery. With one of the most popular items being the smoked salmon, a smokehouse is in the works as well. This is only the beginning.

The Joint is located at 13718 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 11231

Hang & Eat with our food blogger Kristie Hang as she explores the latest East West food trends.

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