Introducing the viral eatery started up by skaters-turned-restauranteurs Alex and Seb Lam.
In 2017 cult eatery HANBAO dropped a Star Wars-themed, charcoal black burger that went viral. Named ‘The Vader’, images of the squid ink black brioche meat feast began trending on socials, and the burger bar was immediately inundated with bookings. Fast forward two years and the HANBAO premises have doubled in size. Extending the busy venue to include a rooftop bar and accommodate the exuberant custom filling it seven days a week, business is booming. ICYBAO, a gourmet dessert bar sitting next to and also owned by HANBAO opened this year, together with prohibition, the opium den themed Speakeasy Limehouse, situated in the turret space on the upper floors.
Conceptualised by skaters Alex and Seb Lam, both brothers turned their ambitions of opening up a restaurant into reality by quitting their 9-5’s. Handing in their notice and relocating back to their home town of Worcester, Alex and Seb began bouncing around entrepreneurial ideas. Capitalising on a niche gap in the quality, fast food market, they then embarked on their big city burger experience. Taking off on a foodie inspired road trip travelling from Hong Kong to LA, eating in both capitals most established and often lesser-known fast food and cocktail spots, the HANBAO menu was realised. Bringing the spice of fusion to rich, stateside foods, HANBAO’s signature east meets west flavour was an instant hit. ICYBAO’s deluxe ice cream-filled, glazed doughnut sandwich has become a favourite on The Gram. Just search #whatsyaflava up on IG now.
Today, crowds pack out the HANBAO rooftop bar each weekend. Live music and DJs perform, along with an outdoor screen playing cult movies all year round. An ambitious project for two first time entrepreneurs, the success of each venue has transformed Worcestershire’s nightlife scene. Featured in publications as a trailblazing spot, The Lam empire has quickly garnered a reputation as a scene to be at. Catching up with Seb and Alex ahead of their expansion into Birmingham, Wonderland finds out more about what it takes to establish a successful self-made brand in under five years.
What was the initial point of conception for Hanbao, what conversation led you to believe the business could be a real-life success and not just a dream? Alex: We had discussed it for a long time. We had eaten in burger restaurants in Manchester & London and loved the concept of burgers with that added extra, be it the food, or the setting. The trigger was another shit morning at work (bank), I got a grilling for not following the rigid sales script to a customer, and I was done. I went for a cigarette and called my brother, and said: “let’s do it, let’s open this restaurant”. It’s hard to make a new business work, especially in a small city. We needed to give it the best chance possible because we knew we only had one shot at getting it right. We did it all on a wing and a prayer.
What role do you both take in the running of the business? Seb: I take the office role in managing everything business-related, always trying to improve, grow and push it forward. Alex takes the operative side, so anything in front of house or back of house. Alex is the hands-on driving force that keeps everything running smoothly.
How would you describe your approach to running a business? Alex: We’re perfectionists. We continuously strive to be the best we can be, and I don’t think that will ever change. We’re hot on standards. We’ve built up a reputation that can easily be lost, so we’re conscientious of anything coming out of the kitchen that doesn’t fit the bill. Luckily our operations manager Si comes from a great hospitality background and is on the same page as us when it comes to standards. The devil is in the detail, and no matter how much the business grows we won’t lose focus on what’s important to us and what our customers expect.
What are your ambitions for the brand long term? Seb: Naturally, we want to expand as far as we can. But internally, we’re continually evolving as a brand and its a very different company to when we first started out. The beauty of burgers is that they’re such a versatile food. There are endless avenues to go down in terms of flavours and presentation. We like to test the waters and go as radical as possible with specials and bring in fresh ideas with collabs. We want people to keep coming back and be impressed every time. As a brand, we aim to grow and change as the market does while always pushing the boundaries.
Why did you decide to open an ice cream bar? Alex: We don’t do desserts in Hanbao, and we wanted to create something with its own focus that didn’t seem like an after-thought. Hanbao’s small menu is an integral part of the concept so we decided to create an entirely new brand to complement it. There’s a clear difference between the two businesses, but they are both driven with the same quality standards. The beauty of ice cream, like burgers, is we can create pretty much anything we want. The ice cream base is the blank canvas, customers just need to let their imagination run wild with flavour combinations. We make all our ice cream in house and are continuously experimenting with new exciting flavours that people can’t get anywhere elsewhere. Our signature Icybao is essentially an ice cream burger which unites the two business.
Why was the food and drink market your chosen industry, do you have ambitions to branch out into other markets? Seb: Food has always played a massive role in our upbringing. We’re of Chinese heritage, so we were always travelling to meet with family and friends. We are always surrounded by foods and flavours you didn’t see in your standard British restaurant. Hospitality is definitely where our passion lies, and I can’t imagine putting this much time and effort into something else.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever gone down in your businesses? Seb: Nothing too crazy yet, but there’s time. I’d say the most significant issue we have is customers stealing random, unusual items; glassware, cutlery, tap ends, soap, pages from the menus. You name it they’ll try to take it, it’s always interesting when they get caught. I guess they just want to experience the Hanbao Vibes at home.
What makes your signature Ice Cream product, the “ICYBAO” so delicious? Alex: It’s the combination of hot and cold, the nostalgia of cake and ice cream. The texture of the crunchy caramelised sugar on the doughnut and smooth ice cream is epic.
What trends in food are your recognising now? Seb: Inconspicuous vegan food is definitely trending right now. Our new larger kitchen has given us the ability to experiment more with vegan offerings, and we are currently working on new vegan options. We’ve also noticed a significant interest in traditional Asian flavours, be that Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino.
Which person or brand provides you with inspiration? Seb: McDonalds; love them or hate them, there’s no denying that McDonalds are masters in the field of fast food. We strive to offer the consistency of product that they do. Their global presence is outstanding. We want our customers to know that when they come to us, they are going to get what they bargained for or better.
Do you have any more foodie travel trips coming up? Alex: We’re planning on doing a tour of south-east Asia, Japan and Australia. The burger scene in Australia is vast, and it’s spreading into Asia. We want to explore more flavours from the east. We are keen to experiment with different combinations, different methods of cooking, entirely different ingredients that even we may not have heard of. We want to Vlog our journey to get our social media platforms involved.
What was the highlight of your trip across LA? Alex: It was our first experience in America, famous for its fast food and burger industry. Growing up, listening to hip-hop and experiencing LA culture through media channels to then living it ourselves was incredible. The contrast between passing through sketchy backstreets of skid row and drinking cocktails in secret rooftop bars was surreal.
Where is your favourite spot for a drink in Hong Kong? Seb: Mrs Pound & Foxglove, these are seriously cool places to get a cocktail. Nothing beats a cold beer sat on the harbour overlooking the Hong Kong island skyline.
What you feel proud of when you reflect on your businesses? Alex: Positive recognition, it’s what drives us to do more, negative drives us to be better. It’s a win-win situation. Also, the staff, working hospitality is a tough slog, and to continually drive the standards we set is difficult, they’re the backbone of the company.
How did you first connect with Rob Draper and what projects has he worked on with you to date? Seb: Robby D was introduced to us by our Design Agency as they’re old graffiti friends from way back. The rest is history. We sparked and instantly got on, we just found working with Rob was like working with an old friend. Robby first came to work with us on the opening, and we commissioned a large mural on the restaurant wall ‘All Beef No Drama’. From there on it spiralled into graffiti on the walls, toilets, even a pair of Nikes. Afterwards, we worked with Robby on some interior bits and pieces for the new site before he had to commit to working on a big project he had lined up.
Do you have any more collaborations planned? Seb: We’re in discussions with Dark Circle to create an experiential product, we want to push the boundaries with collabs. It’s far too predictable nowadays, t-shirts, keyrings… We want to create an experience for our customers so they can be wowed. Going away and saying you had a sick night is far better than a faded cheap Gildan t-shirt with our logos on it.