Food & Drink

Hawkers restaurant to bring ‘streets of Asia’ to Chapel Hill’s University Place mall

A new restaurant will bring the smells and flavors of Southeast Asia’s popular street fare to University Place on South Estes Drive.

Hawkers is named for Asian street vendors who prepare and sell family recipes from mobile stands and stalls. The restaurant will serve homemade favorites, from dumplings and wonton to curries, wings and pork belly.

It was founded in 2011 in Orlando, Florida, by four friends who wanted to re-create that experience.

Like the “streets of Asia,” Hawkers will be a lively, fun place for families, date nights or evenings out with friends, said co-founder Kaleb Harrell. They’re not a chain, he said, but are being thoughtful about markets that “really appreciate and understand what we’re doing.”

“The hawker centers are such an important part of Asian culture, and they’re represented by hyperactivating all the senses,” Harrell said. “It’s loud, it’s bustling. If you’re going to the night market, it’s got bright neon lights everywhere. You’re getting all of the smells of 40 different things being cooked in 40 different hawker stalls.”

The restaurant will be the second North Carolina location when it opens early next year. The company has seven restaurants on the East Coast, including one that opened this year in Charlotte, and is adding three more, including in Chapel Hill.

Hawkers patio.jpg
Hawkers, a casual Asian street food restaurant, is planned for the Estes Drive side of University Place. The space, two doors down from Fine Feathers, is currently vacant and would be renovated to create a lively outdoor seating area. Hawkers Asian Street Fare Contributed

The town’s Community Design Commission approved renovation plans for the roughly 4,900-square-foot mall storefront July 24. The work will replace an existing patio and add a fresh coat of paint and new trim, doors and windows to the space, a few doors down from William Travis Jewelry. A fire pit and planters will be added to the outdoor space.

The dining room and patio will seat roughly 180 diners, who will be able to see what’s happening in the open-style kitchen, Harrell said. The bar, which generates 30% to 40% of their business, will be at the center of the action.

But the biggest change may be the colorful murals planned inside and outside the restaurant. The company is talking with Durham-based visual artist Gabriel Eng-Goetz about ideas, Harrell said.

They want their customers to enjoy the food but also to learn about Asian cultures, Harrell said. Chapel Hill’s college-town culture has the diversity and energy that Hawkers looks for in a new location, he said.

“I think, in general ... that college environment has spilled over into the local atmosphere of Chapel Hill and the local community,” Harrell said. “Everybody there seems a little bit more cultured, a little more diverse and just a little more open to trying something new.”

University Place 2019.jpg
Ram Real Estate is planning a new look for several exterior entrances at University Place mall in Chapel Hill. The architectural updates are aimed at creating a more consistent appearance with the exterior of nearby Silverspot Cinema and the Bartaco restaurant. It will preserve the public plaza (at center). BB+M Architecture Contributed

Mall owner Ram Realty also sees Hawkers as a good fit, said Ashley Saulpaugh, investment director with Ram Realty Advisers. Ram is bringing in unique restaurants, but also wants to add some alternative boutiques and stores, he said.

“We’re not trying to compete with Southpoint or any of these larger, regional retail projects, and we can’t compete with them,” Saulpaugh said. “We’re trying to bring in really strong local operators or regional operators that have 10 to 15 locations that have a focus on really high-quality design, and it becomes more of a destination for that reason.”

The area between Bartaco and Hawkers — where the “eyes” mural is now — will be remodeled later this year to have outward-facing storefronts. Ram is looking for tenants that “complement what’s already there,” Saulpaugh said, including potentially a shop selling coffee and fresh-pressed juice or a yoga and pilates studio.

Negotiations are underway for some of those spaces, he said.

“Nothing just yet that I can talk about, but we’re probably not too far off from being able to make some other announcements,” he said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.