Written by Sophie X. Song
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by K Tea Café, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “I want a group of friends to come to my café, and everyone to be able to enjoy my food no matter what diet they have.”
Katie Voong is indeed a woman of many talents. She’s a restaurant owner, mother, corporate caterer, guest chef, and philanthropist, just to name just a few of her titles. Before her interview at 11 AM, she’d already driven some distance to purchase tofu for a new dish she planned on making at K Tea Café—her stylish Sunnyvale tea bar specializing in jianbing, Asian snack foods, and bubble tea. She worked until midnight the night prior, as she does almost every night, but that hasn’t diminished Katie’s seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm.
“Taiwanese fried chicken is one of our most popular dishes,” Katie explained. “I want to make a vegan version with tofu that will taste just as good. It’ll take a lot of seasoning and marinating, but it’ll be delicious!”
Katie created everything on her extensive menu herself. She does this in a corner of the café’s kitchen, which Katie has cheerfully dubbed her “laboratory.” It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that Katie began working on adding more vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes, starting with her signature jianbing. “The Classic,” which is Katie’s personal favorite, is made with an egg, crispy fried wonton skin, green onion, cilantro, and black sesame, topped with garlic chili and sweet bean sauce. It’s packed with fabulous flavors — and is totally vegetarian. There are also vegan alternatives to the popular recipe using vegan ham and cheese or vegan chick’n. Even her scrumptious bubble teas are all available with either almond or soy milk.
“I want a group of friends to come to my café, and everyone to be able to enjoy my food no matter what diet they have,” Katie said. And as she offered her interview, she revealed how she was already envisioning another dish she hoped to create next — vegetarian eel over rice.
When Katie opened her café in 2018, success came quickly. Although she professed not to be on any social media personally, Katie proved to be a natural when it came to promoting her business both off and on the internet. She started an Instagram page to help get the word out for K Tea Café, and also set up a jianbing station on the side of Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale, CA. People admired how dexterous she was with her craft, and occasionally while she made her jianbing, journalists who’d heard of this intriguing new spot came by to photograph her in action.
The café became very popular, and within six months of starting the business, she was catering to the most well-known high-tech companies in the Bay Area. These included Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Uber. She was also invited to be a guest chef by clients, and set up her jianbing station at events to serve savory street foods along with her signature bubble teas. At first, she might have served a few hundred at a single event, but Katie always thought she could do more.
“They would ask if I could do 500, 800, then even 1,000,” Katie said. “It was crazy, but I always pulled it off!”
Everything seemed to be going perfectly, but that changed almost overnight.
It’s an oft-cited adage in the restaurant business that in the first two years, you’re still getting a feel for your business and your clientele, Katie explained. Likewise, a large portion of one’s savings, if not all, had many times been poured into the initial investment, so it wasn’t ordinarily until the third year that a restaurant truly had a chance of turning a profit. For K Tea Café, 2020 had marked its third year. When COVID-19 spread across the globe, business at K Tea Café, like countless other venues, had to be put on pause for the safety of communities near and far. Her corporate clients all closed their offices, and employees began working remotely. Needless to say, there were few events in need of a jianbing stand.
“We went from a team of 15 down to just five,” Katie said. “Even this skeleton crew is not just five people — they are five families. Every decision I made, I wanted to think about all these people. I had to take responsibility for them.”
Katie redoubled the social media campaigns for her café to stay afloat, and began offering free home delivery within San Francisco and the Bay Area. It was a challenge, but it was one she rose to meet at each turn. With a limited staff, Katie also had to take on nearly everything herself where necessary.
“It’s like there are several Katies,” she laughed. “The business owner, the chef, etcetera, so I talk to myself. If I don’t feel like doing something, I’ll be like, ‘tell that to the other Katie!’”
Fortunately, Katie’s family and friends have been very supportive, and her customers regularly reach out to check on her, too. “Are you doing okay, Katie?” and “I hope the café survives this pandemic!” are some of the kind messages that Katie has received, and all are deeply cherished. Likewise, her staff has similarly become akin to family as they support one another during this trying time.
Despite the difficulties of running this young business, Katie still considers herself lucky to have her own café where she can pursue her passion each day. Forever aspiring to give back to her community, she’s also become a board member for several charity organizations, including the Sunnyvale Downtown Association, the Peninsula Food Runners, and Catering for Charity. During the pandemic, Katie has donated over 1,000 meals thus far to people facing food insecurity. And through her partnership with the Very Veggie Movement, she’s also making vegan and vegetarian alternatives more accessible through her discount for individuals who sign up for the movement.
As more businesses and institutions across the U.S. gradually reopen their doors, Katie feels like some of her stalled plans can pick up again, too. In the coming months, she intends to improve her vegan and vegetarian menus further and finish packaging her bubble tea in their stylish bottles so they’ll be easier to deliver and sell at catering gigs.
“When I face any sort of hardship, I don’t want to complain about it. I just go, ‘okay, what can I do to make it better?’” Katie said, and explained how this outlook helped K Tea Café even through the most difficult moments. Now, she looks forward to seeing it thrive.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!