Amy Wong and family expand Atlanta’s palate with Food Terminal and Sweet Hut
Credit: CHRIS HUNT
Rachel Ewe (left) is business development manager for the Sweet Hut Group hospitality company her mother, Amy Wong, started with a single bakery in 2012. Now it boasts five Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafes and four Food Terminal locations. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Amy Wong was 10 years old when she began selling vegetables at night on the streets of Ipoh, Malaysia, to make ends meet for herself and her mother, a widow since Amy was 8 months old.
By age 15, Amy was operating her own kiosk at a night market. Homework took a back seat when school ended at 1:30 p.m. Rather than hit the books, Wong would head to the market to purchase ingredients for dishes like curry laksa chicken and Cantonese-style barbecue pork tossed in noodles. She’d hustle home, prepare the recipes like her mother taught her, then pack it all up and open her market stall by 5 p.m.
“We were so poor,” said Wong, as she recounted that period of her life.
Despite the hardship of her youth, this former hawker of the 1970s is now matriarch of an entrepreneurial family that founded its own night market concept of sorts in Atlanta — Food Terminal — as well as popular Asian bakery Sweet Hut. She is also a partner-owner of Thai-Malaysian restaurant Top Spice in Toco Hill.
Together with brother-in-law Howie Ewe and daughters Rachel Ewe and Jane Ewe, the 61-year-old chef employs more than 350 people under the Sweet Hut Groupumbrella, their hospitality company that encompasses four Food Terminal locations and fiveSweet Hut spots in metro Atlanta — plus a Sweet Hut in Plano, Texas — and the Sweet Hut commissary kitchen in Doraville. (Her husband, Patrick Ewe, resides in Malaysia where he runs a family bakery, restaurant and other food businesses.)
Their concepts pushed boundaries in the Atlanta dining scene when they debuted, and they continue to introduce new patrons to an expanse of Asian baked goods and the diversity of Malaysian cuisine.
Atlanta might not have figured into Amy’s life story were it not for her best friend from Malaysia, who had emigrated to the U.S. and settled here. The friend encouraged Amy to follow suit when her accounting job in their homeland didn’t look like it would provide financial security.
Upon Amy’s arrival in Atlanta in 1988, she landed a cashier position at a Chinese restaurant. For 13 years she worked at various restaurants before partnering with a friend who wanted to open a Thai restaurant. The timing for Top Spice was right. It was the early 2000s, a period when Thai cuisine was considered among the “new, cool foodie exotic cuisines in Atlanta,” recalled Jane.
But it was Amy’s idea to include Malaysian dishes like beef rendang and curried beef on the Top Spice menu.
“I suggested to him: ‘Since we opened the Thai restaurant, why not bring out the Malaysian cuisine?’ At the time there was no Malaysian restaurant in Atlanta,” Amy said.
Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe pushed similar boundaries in the local dining scene when it debuted on Buford Highway in Doraville in 2012. Whereas other Asian bakeries on Buford Highway were built on grab-and-go models, the concept by Amy, Patrick and Howie distinguished itself as a sit-down café.
“Dad wanted to create an environment that people could come and hang out,” Jane said.
The family wanted to offer Cantonese-style baked goods (prepared by Howie, who trained as a baker in Taiwan) that would appeal to the general public, and they went to great lengths to make their cafe a comfortable place for people of diverse backgrounds. When little kids started asking for doughnuts, those got added to the selection of sweet and savory buns, toast, cakes and snacks, with price tags in Chinese and English.
Still, educating customers was an ongoing effort — and not just about the baked goods themselves like Portuguese egg tarts with brûléed tops that distinguish them from Hong Kong-style versions, barbecue pork buns or Hong Kong polo buns with pineapple filling — but also how to shop for them.
“We had to designate a person to show customers that in a normal Asian bakery, you grab a tray and pick what you want,” said Jane. Sweet Hut even played a part in introducing Atlantans to now ubiquitous bubble tea. “For many people, it was their first bubble tea,” she said.
Sweet Hut continues to stay at the vanguard of the baking scene as they experiment with flavors (have you tried the Thai chile buns?) and incorporate trends that Amy discovers on culinary scouting trips to Malaysia and Taiwan.
Yet it’s Sweet Hut’s early days that left an indelible picture in Rachel’s mind: “My uncle baking, my mom brewing tea and my dad trying to hire as many people as he could.”
Although Rachel worked at Top Spice for a couple years as a teenager, she didn’t envision “doing restaurants” for the rest of her life. Yet, in 2013, the UGA graduate with a degree in management information systems left her job with Freddie Mac in Washington, D.C., to join the family crew full-time.
“I’d been helping her at the backend with logo, social media stuff. But there’s only so much that I can do 1,000 miles away. She told me, ‘If you want to help, just come back and help me to grow.”
Now business development director for Sweet Hut Group, Rachel, 35, has a different outlook about being a part of the family’s operations: “I can make a large impact.”
Her passion rubbed off on Jane, 32, who holds a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Tech and doesn’t regret leaving her job with Kimberly-Clark to be part of the family business. “It’s so much fun because we get to introduce our culture to others,” she said. “Working in corporate, there is a little bit less passion. It’s more of a job.”
Their Malaysian street food concept, Food Terminal, has certainly been a passion project for the family. “We wanted do something really geared to our heritage,” said Rachel.
In designing the interior of the original Food Terminal location on Buford Highway that debuted in 2017, Tao Lin, Rachel’s husband and founder of Urbaneve Design Studio, took as inspiration the same kind of bustling night market where his mother-in-law once peddled soup and noodle dishes.
“In the night market setting, there are a lot of light boxes, and it’s always crowded. That’s the kind of ambiance that we were trying to achieve,” said Tao about Food Terminal’s industrial, urban vibe. “So we have the colorful light boxes to symbolize that perspective and each light box actually symbolizes a category of our menu. In addition, we have wood candles, carved with both Chinese and English, to represent some of our signature dishes.”
The most signature of them all is the Grandma Wonton BBQ Pork, the Cantonese dish featuring Amy’s mother’s recipe for barbecue pork. But the menu isn’t just a compilation of family recipes. Rather, the dishes reflect the diversity of their mother’s native country.
“Malaysia is a very diverse country. Fifty percent of the population is native Malay, around 25% is Chinese and the rest are Indian. It’s a big melting pot,” said Rachel. “We don’t think it’s going to do it justice if we have (only) a few items on the menu. We wanted to put in everything to represent Malaysian food.”
At Food Terminal, diners can swoon over ginger-laced poached chicken adopted from immigrants of China’s Hainan province and curry laksa chicken noodle soup, which Rachel called a “true infusion” of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian culinary influences.
Food Terminal’s 40-page, full-color glossy, magazine-style menu has served as a unique tool for educating customers about Malaysian food. “A good picture speaks a thousand words,” said Tao, who designed the menu, now in its 13th edition. “We wanted to use full-blown pictures to show people what exactly they’re ordering, help them better to understand the kind of food that we carry.”
Rachel and Jane are glad to continue the entrepreneurial path that their elders forged, particularly as their mother plans on retiring this year to spend time with her four grandchildren.
The company has expanded vastly since the daughters came on board. The year 2017 was particularly noteworthy. That 12-month span saw the debut of the original Food Terminal and the openings of Sweet Hut locations in Kennesaw, at Lenox Mall in Buckhead and in Plano, Texas, the latter made possible when a team member relocated to that state.
“We had plans in 2017 to explore a Houston location, but after we opened the Plano location, we decided to re-evaluate our growth. Then there was COVID. So it was like, ‘Let’s just take a break,’” said Jane.
That doesn’t mean they are done trying.
“If there is a business opportunity, a location that we like, and we have the people for it, we’ll definitely go for it,” said Rachel.
“We don’t know how far we can take this brand,” said Jane, “But it’s very satisfying to grow.”
Ligaya Figueras is the AJC's senior editor for Food, Dining and Living. Prior to joining the AJC in 2015, she was the executive editor for St. Louis-based culinary magazine Sauce. She has worked in the publishing industry since 1999 and holds degrees from St. Louis University and the University of Michigan.