There is no doubt that the build up to the launch of craft cocktail bar, Hop Sing Laundromat, was the most well-documented and overly-covered story in the Philly restaurant/bar scene over the past few years, and quite possibly, ever. The proprietor, Lêe, executed a meticulous and complex public relations plan, leaking out little bits of info to different outlets over the course of a year-and-a-half, creating a deafening buzz that divided the city into two distinct camps: You couldn't wait another minute for Hop Sing to open, or you wanted to burn the building to the ground with Lêe inside of it.
After a little more than 6 months, it looks like HSL is on the road to converting more haters than proving them right, and even some of Philly's most jaded critics have given the bar a thumbs up, and proclaimed Lêe's cocktails as some of the most creative and successful they've ever tasted. And still there are throngs of boozers that will happily toast the death of HSL in the name of schadenfreude if it ever closes up shop.
Eater chatted up Lêe about the first six months in business, how he's handled the haters, and what he's planning next in his empire.
The amount of hype that surrounded Hop Sing Laundromat while it was under construction was pretty intense, and almost too much to live up to. But, things seem to be going quite well now that you're open for business. Were you always confident that everything would work out?
Yes, the hype was ridiculous and it still is. I thought there was no way Hop Sing Laundromat could ever live up to the public expectation which was built up by the press. But, being mentioned by professional critics for our first menu is an honor and definitely not something that I expected.
There is a saying that goes something like: "First one through the wall will always get the bruising and more than anyone else." I feel that every day from the anonymous internet haters. But, at the end of the day, I'd rather be the first to walk through the wall then shove some tired NYC concept down your throat. I would rather leave a trail than follow a path. I hope all the naysayers will recognize this someday.
Were you ever worried about all the negative talk, or did you know that the end product would convert the haters?
There will always be doubters. They will try to bring you down and will tell you that what you are doing is stupid, but that's all a part of the fight, and as in most fights, it may get bloody. If you have that passion then you will make it work and the doubters will come to realize that; if not, then just make sure you live near a blood bank (laughing).
To be honest, I didn't know if it would work out because the project was a little ambitious on my part, and I didn't know any better never having owned a bar before. Therefore, the only logical explanation I can give you is that I am an extremely lucky person. It wasn't some sort of master plan, honestly, it was all luck, pure and simple.
In the time you've been open, what has surprised you most about the cocktail universe in Philly?
Well, we're the only craft cocktail bar in Philly that opened our doors with only our own recipes on the lanch menu. Our entire menu was done in house, by me, without the help of consultants from NYC. No other cocktail lists were harmed in the process (laughing). I asked my old friends Toby Maloney (The Violet Hour, Chicago) and Rob Fuentevilla (Mayahuel, NYC) from my bartending days, to come down to help train the staff, as there was no way for me to train a bunch of inexperienced bartenders on my own.
Also, I've refused to serve the Penicillin and Simo Cup libations at our establishment out of respect for Joaquin Simo and Sam Ross. These gentlemen, along with Toby and Rob are among the best, if not the best bartenders working in the U.S. today. To see some Philly cocktail bars serving these libations or anyone's else recipes without giving them credit is a disgrace.
You picked Philly for your bar before you started development, which raised a few eyebrows. Would you still make that same choice knowing what you know today in regards to the angry internet mob as well as the PLCB challenges?
Much has been said about the PLCB, but in our particular situation, it would have been the same thing if we were located in other cities. We have the most expensive well liquors in the U.S., so I probably would have to put in a special order for 90% of these spirits no matter where I set up shop.
Also, I'll probably end up getting hate mail and even more negative comments for this, but the PLCB folks at the 23rd & Washington warehouse have been fantastic to us from day 1, to say the least. They understand what we are trying to do, and in some cases, even suggested brands available in PA that I was not aware of. Or, may be they are being nice because I've "threatened" to run for office someday (laughing).
What goals have you set for Hop Sing Laundromat that you've yet to achieve?
1. My parents & siblings have yet to see Hop Sing Laundromat and I'd like to have a day off soon.
2. I don't think anyone could ever truly be satisfied with achieving your goals, as you must continue to improve the quality of your products and your guests satisfaction on a daily basis if you are in the hospitality business.
Your debut project was anything but simple to build, and very original in concept. How can you top yourself with your next project, whatever it might be?
Hop Sing Laundromat will always be special to me, no matter where I end up in the future, and I will always be thankful to the people of Philadelphia, who continue to think highly of what I've done so far.
We are currently entertaining offers to build 3 other restaurants and bars in different cities, but I have yet to commit to any of these projects. But, if I ever decide to accept these offers then my traveling suitcase will always carry a Philadelphia tag on it, because this city gave me a chance to fulfill my idiotic vision.
For the record, I've always wanted to do a Saigonese restaurant, and I'll just leave it at that.
When you're not drinking at HSL, who makes the best cocktails in Philly?
This is a little known fact about me, but I am not a drinker, so I go wherever Mr. Miller Lite is working that night.
Thanks for your time, and keep up the good work.
Thank you. And, also, I would like to give a shoutout and big thank you to my very hardworking staff for making us successful.