The hillbillies are invading Shanghai. The world’s largest city has been taken by storm, with diners flocking to the city’s newest culinary darling, a little spot called Hillbilly Tea.
Yes, you heard that right: The First Street restaurant, popular in Louisville for its locavore cuisine, moonshine cocktails and, above all, tea, opened its second branch this March, on the other side of the globe. It’s a bold move — most talk of expansion for a young business involves another branch in the same city, or maybe regional franchising — but owner Karter Louis says it’s just another example of the serendipity that has guided the restaurant since it opened in 2010.
“My approach has always been to let this experience guide me,” Louis reflects. He and his partners were already looking to expand, scoping out cities such as Nashville, Cincinnati and Columbus for an expansion in 2014. Then last September, while having dinner in Shanghai with two fellow Louisvillians, Louis was met with a surprising proposition.
“One of the guys, a landscape architect, asked what I did, so I said, ‘I own a restaurant called Hillbilly Tea.’ And he goes, ‘What? My wife and I go every time I’m home! I love it!’ He freaked out, sitting in a restaurant in Shanghai, China. I was blown away; it was so surreal. And then he proceeded to say, ‘You know, you should really consider opening a Hillbilly Tea in Shanghai.’”
At first, Louis wrote the idea off as ludicrous; he’s heard requests from Brooklyn to Denver from people wanting their own neighborhood Hillbilly Tea. But the architect insisted. “He said, ‘No really, think about it: There’s no good American food in China; they only know us for McDonald’s and KFC. You have real food.’”
Having lived in Shanghai for a year, Louis understood where the man was coming from. “I used to have KFC delivered to my house every Wednesday. I wouldn’t necessarily eat it, but I did it because I missed home,” he recalls. “Even though they were crappy mashed potatoes, and I don’t even really eat mashed potatoes, I just needed some Americana in my life. So I totally got what he meant.”
From there, things fell into place with surprising rapidity. A location opened up, and six months later, Hillbilly Tea Shanghai, whose Chinese name translates directly to Bumpkin Tea Tavern, was open for business. Mayor Greg Fischer attended the opening (in another turn of serendipity, he happened to be in China visiting his son). Things snowballed quickly, and today the 30-square-foot space is the No. 1 brunch spot in a city of more than 23 million people.
Louis says the space has a very similar look and feel to the Louisville location, and while certain menu items have been tweaked for regional taste (they can go spicier in China) or lack of equipment (no fryer means no bean fritters), the goal has always been to give customers the same Hillbilly Tea experience that Derby City residents know and love. With a changing seasonal menu, Louis and executive chef Arpi Lengyel must now take into account the availability of ingredients in China as well as Kentucky when planning the slate of fare. Luckily, more and more organic farms have begun popping up around Shanghai, so for the most part, they are able to remain fairly flexible in terms of their menu options.
Louis has been surprised by the restaurant’s popularity among middle-class Chinese, for whom brunch is a novelty. Louis credits the success to the universal appeal of soul food, which he explains “doesn’t mean just collard greens and fried chicken. Now that I’ve lived in many places around the world, I understand the various types of soul food, whether it’s Hungarian blood sausage or Taiwanese night market food. Soul food is about comforting; there’s something about the spirit of the food that touches you and brings you joy.”
What started with a joke between friends and frustration at the lack of an American tea narrative has exploded into an international business, something Louis would never have predicted three years ago. “I had other things I wanted to do! It was supposed to be a little, small venture in Louisville. But it just continues to grow,” he says.
As for what’s next for the Hillbilly gang, Louis is excited about the launch of their hooch operation, which will begin distributing the company’s boozy tea across the country next year, and there is still talk of more locations, with possibilities ranging from Chattanooga and Pittsburgh to Taiwan. The unexpected success so far has left Louis feeling exhilarated and excited about the business’s future. As he puts it, “We just had our annual meeting of the partners, and it was like picking from a catalog: What do we want to do next?”