Meet (v.) Jacky Hung
Apr. 19, 2018
Hong-Kong born Jacky Hung (image above, right) is the co-owner of Beaucoup Bakery & Café in Vancouver (his sister Betty, the other co-owner, is on the left). He shares the impact his upbringing had on developing an Entrepreneur mindset, and details the importance of self-knowledge in being an effective leader.
He talks about his true passion - customer service - and how much he cherishes even the most momentary interactions he shares with customers. He explains how he deals with feelings of fear and uncertainty in everyday life, and marvels at how food can bring people together when our lives are so busy and complicated.
The Beaucoup identity
What is Beaucoup best known for?
Beaucoup is definitely known for croissants.
But from my point of view, I think Beaucoup is known for its charm and its uniqueness as a bakery and cafe. When I am not working, I actually really enjoy the space at Beaucoup. Maybe not when it’s, like, packed with people…
Which is pretty much ninety percent of the time.
(laughs) But when there’s a little bit of a lull in the space I really enjoy kind of just being inside.
Your croissants - what’s the process like to make them?
Our croissants take three days in preparation to make.
I think there are other recipes that calls for less days, but I think our recipe is a little bit more specific, so it takes more time.
When I saw the croissant for the first time, I saw all the layers and thought, “This can’t be easy to make. It’s not a cookie-cutter croissant.”
It’s very artisanal. A lot of people’s hands have gone through it. I think all the chefs touch it because the dough needs to be made and then it needs to be frozen, and de-thawed again to be back in a workable, malleable temperature where it’s also laminated with the butter.
Oh, yeah, each layer. There’s a specific layer that we go for and it’s interesting because we made a mistake one time and it was the worst. Yeah, just like one more fold. One more fold. Anyone would have noticed – even the texture was different.
So it was unsellable?
It was unsellable. Period.
Yeah, very, very specific, yeah - it can be the temperature, or the butter, or the dough, how long you age it, or the way that it’s folded.
Based on what you just told me, about how easy it is to mess up and how long it takes to prepare, three days seems ridiculous to me.
Hey, you know what, me too! Because I’m not a trained chef, right? I just know these quirks because, you know, my sister tells me about these concerns. So when we’re looking at par numbers, I would go to the chefs like, “Hey, can we increase or lower the pars?” And they say, “Yes, but you’ve got to look three days into the future.”
And then I’m like, “Okay, never mind. Just leave it.” Because I can’t even predict what happens in an hour, never mind three days in advance.
I was told a story about how people from France came in and tried the croissants and they loved it.
Yeah, we have heard that from time-to-time and it makes us feel warm and fuzzy. Really. It also helps us to keep the quality up and also keep the experience special for those who come in.
What got you into running your own business?
So my parents were Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. And it’s funny because the only way that they saw to improve their lives and our lives was to open their own business. It was really the only way they saw a way upwards, because they lacked education.
From what I understand, during that time in the late eighties and until the nineties there was kind of a manufacturing boom in China - because of the special economic zone in Shen Zhen, which is close to Hong Kong. And so my mom and my dad opened a factory there.
It was a relatively unstable career because it wasn’t as politically stable back then, so the government could have shut down the factory out of nowhere. And then all your investments would be gone.
That is scary. It seems even riskier, in many ways, than if you were trying to do the same thing now.
It’s wild, right? And so when I heard similar stories as a kid I’m just like, “Oh, that’s just life”, you know? You’re used to it. But now that I hear about it I’m thinking, “Those are very, very, real consequences.”
Do you think you became inclined to wanting that similar lifestyle because that’s just the way you were brought up?
Yeah, you know what? It probably is. I think about it a lot, because from what I understand - you grow up a blank slate. And as a child, you need reference points until you grow older and become more exposed to different things.
Sometimes I wish my parents could have brought me up in a more of a ‘stable career’ environment. But they had to do what they did to increase our opportunity for the future, or it was nothing. It’s kind of crazy if you think about how zero-sum it really was.
And now we reap the rewards, which is unthinkable, in my opinion. I actually can’t wrap my head around it because well, first of all I’m not married, and I don’t have kids. It’s a huge sacrifice that I think I often overlook and I often don’t think about enough.
I feel like we’re more determined by our circumstances than we think we are. Unfortunately, perhaps.
You just explained how your parents’ mindset was. How is your mindset as an Entrepreneur?
For us, I think, because of the decisions our parents have made, it opens us to more opportunities. It’s a snowballing effect – but you just don’t know how different decisions you make will affect the future.
But luckily for us – very luckily for us, we now have the opportunity to operate Beaucoup. And in terms of the mindset, we just get to do what we love.
Passion and Feedback
Where do you get the passion for what you do?
For me it is really about customer service. I really enjoy the relationships that you build and even the short interactions you have with everyone. I recently read a book, and it’s going to sound a little bit cliché and a little bit deep - but it’s about endings.
It’s about death, and this author proposes that we’re not so much afraid of death - we’re afraid of endings of relationships.
I guess for me, when I work backwards, relationships and moments of interactions are what give me meaning. Because things come and go. Amongst most things that come and go, I think relationships and interactions are what fulfills me the most. Because I know - ultimately, it will end.
It seems kind of bleak, but no, I don’t think so.
For a lot of our regulars, Beaucoup is like a happy place. And it’s such an honor to provide that for people. For all food establishments out there, they should feel proud that they have made a little bit of a difference in someone’s life by serving them food or tea or just saying, “How’s your day?”
Because what else matters? I guess for me that’s how I’ve kind of distilled it.
Do you see yourself continuing with Beaucoup for the next five, ten years?
Oh, absolutely. I feel like there’s still a lot of things we can do with Beaucoup. It’s my career, so I don’t foresee myself really doing anything else. I’m one hundred percent in.
And I’m assuming that’s the same for your sister?
Absolutely. Well, I shouldn’t speak for my sister, but she loves to bake. She goes to work and bakes, she gets off work and bakes. She is baking at least twenty hours a week after work. She just enjoys baking so, so much.
Say somebody complains about something you’ve served, “Oh, it’s not as good here”, or whatever. Do you have interactions like that?
Of course. We take feedback very seriously. How I see it is... When a customer gives you any sort of feedback, good or bad, there is a level of trust. There’s a level of trust that we would take that feedback into consideration.
What I would never want for the business or for myself is to not receive any sort of feedback. Blind spots are the end of anything – of decision making.
The Beaucoup Way
What are some things you’re willing to change for the sake of feedback? As an artist you can call your work a masterpiece, but if you run a business it also matters how other people perceive it - or they won’t buy it.
There are things that we’re extremely stubborn about when it comes to what our products should be like. So for example, our croissants are a little bit darker than what most North Americans would prefer. And that’s because we like it that way, and it provides a depth of flavour that you don’t get if you didn’t make it a bit more toasty. That’s not negotiable.
Sure, people can ask us, “Can you pick one that’s less dark?” Visually, it might be less dark, but it’s going to be the same experience. It’s going to be flaky, it’s going to have that caramelized, dark, croissant dough flavour, and it’s going to be well baked.
I’m assuming a lot of thought goes into what is ultimately served to the customer. How do you go about creating a blueprint to create new products?
We go for the things that we like. Things that we’re passionate about. It has to pass the team’s, and Betty’s, and my taste buds. That would be part of the testing process. For us it’s more of a design process and we take inspiration from traditional Parisian pastries.
In terms of inspiration, there’s tons. The French pastry world moves fast, man. I know, it sounds insane, right? And it’s not only from France - a lot of places are doing super cool stuff. You have places in Japan - their food and pastry scene is always evolving. All of the big centres, really, like San Francisco. There’s a lot of cool pastry places - not to exclude the local bakeries, of course.
In terms of testing, we try to go by seasons. So we will take whatever is seasonal and we will use those produce and make what we can - or what we believe to taste good, really. I mean it’s almost like a, “Yes? No? Does it taste good?” or, “Could it be better?” most of the time.
With several iterations you must have to make to get to the final product, it must take a long time.
It depends. When we made our strawberry mille-feuille for spring last year, our puff pastry went through five or six different iterations. Because we gotta account for shelf-life, how it holds up against the pastry cream in the centre, the overall taste, and also its stability when you bake it.
Last time we went through different recipes because when it baked, the air bubbles were uneven. So we ended up with a mille-feuille that looked ugly. Or we went through a puff pastry that tasted burnt even though it wasn’t. Sometimes it’s a good recipe and we nail it the first time, and then that’s it – we don’t touch it.
It can take months, really. It takes a lot of planning. We are just constantly tasting. We’re also constantly improving the process. You know, it’s weird – I make it almost sound scientific but I think art and science goes a little bit hand-in-hand because baking after all, is a chemical process.
But at the same time, it’s art because you have to consider, well, it’s overall taste and how it looks – the experience, right? That’s always interesting. Usually when you see it in testing, it’s a blob compared to the final product.
You’re just making sure the taste is right first.
Taste is always, always number one. And afterwards we get to have a little bit of time playing with it. And I think that’s the whole recipe-making process – it’s extremely fun. It’s extremely fun because I don’t need to do the work. (laughs) It’s my sister and the awesome chefs.
The few times I’ve visited there, people were taking photos and smiling and saying, “Oh my god, that looks amazing.” And that it smells great. That must give you a lot of satisfaction as well.
My opinion is that we don’t really need to leave a single, large impact on the world. How I think of it when it comes to leaving a positive change is having people leave Beaucoup with a smile, and feeling a sense of satisfaction - a sense of joy - for even a split second.
You know, modern life is stressful. I hope when people come in, they will leave their stress behind.
Actually, one of our most loyal customers, who usually comes in at the end of the day, he just helps us sweep the floor. And I question him – I’m like, “You know, you’re not getting paid for this.” And then he says, “That’s not the point. The point is that when I walk in I just leave my life behind. Leave all the stress at bay and I get to just sweep the floor.”
It’s like therapy for him, because he’s a social worker.
How is your relationship with other local bakeries? Do you see them as competition?
I feel like it’s more about building relationships rather than needing to take your pie or getting a bigger cut of the pie. I love connecting to local bakeries as well, because everyone is always doing something interesting.
For example, we’re very grateful when Thomas Haas comes in from time to time. He’s also another pastry chef. Very famous. Does an incredible job on his almond croissant double-bake – I think it won the best croissant Westender for this year.
He has awesome pastries. And I mean I go there from time to time as well, just to enjoy what they have to offer. And they do the same with us, too. (laughs)
I feel like small businesses especially should stick together rather than compete. I feel like it’s never a zero-sum game, you know? We’re all in it together.
Well, it seems like your method works perfectly fine.
Customer and quality. Customer and quality. Customer and quality.
Ultimately you have to fulfill a demand at a reasonable price, which is the business side of things. But it’s always the intangibles which bring in people like that guy, who comes in and sweeps your floor.
Yeah, it’s the intangibles. I cannot stress about how important the intangibles are. Of course numbers are important – absolutely. It’s just you can’t put the intangibles in numbers. But it doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Do you ever plan on expanding or opening another store somewhere?
Absolutely, we have thought about that. That’s because that’s the number one feedback we get is that we need a bigger place. With that being said, the other side of the coin is we do want to keep it small and unique.
To be quite honest, we’re not here to take over the world of pastry. That’s not our ambition, so to speak. Our goal is to inspire people with quality and care. And I know that sounds like the tagline I always throw, but it’s something that we have developed and that’s what we lead by. We are looking for opportunities but we’re not in a rush.
You said at one point that there are things you want to make but you just don’t have the space.
Exactly. That’s exactly it.
So there’s a lot of things… like when we were in Hong Kong, just a few months back, we went to The Peninsula Hotel and we had the little cakes the hotel had to offer.
They were made by an award-winning French chef. They were life-changing, I’m telling you. It’s not often that you get blown away with food as you start having more experience with food, but that was an inspiring moment.
Was it the appearance that inspired you, or was it more the taste?
It was everything. Everything, to the finest detail. I just loved it. Pure perfection. They don’t even look like cakes.
Let me show you right now, actually:
(Takes out his phone, scrolls through album)
Is all that edible?
Everything is edible. It’s just the amount of detail that they put into it. These would take forever to assemble.
I think when it comes to these small cakes - petit gateau - what was so inspiring to me was the use of taste and the balance, from the texture to the different layers to aesthetics – it’s just taken so much care to make something perfect.
What made them perfect?
I’m out of words even thinking about it. Like the chocolate work - perfect. You eat into it and it melts perfectly and just a piece of white chocolate to decorate it. The tart shell - perfect. It’s not too hard when you use a fork and really get in there.
The cake held up with the pastry cream. The glaze - it wasn’t so gummy. It had a natural taste to it, which is hard for a glaze, because some people might make the sacrifice to put on a glaze that might look good, but leaves a weird texture and a sensation in your tummy.
And also the creativity of the different flavours – one of them was a mango pandan. Do you know what a pandan plant is? It’s kind of like a vanilla that I think you see more in Southeast Asian countries.
So, super fun. Very new experience. So when it comes to food, even from looking at it and getting into the detail - it’s really about the process and experience from eating it. That’s what really inspires us to want to make more.
What is the difference between someone that can make this, where even you’re at a loss of words, and somebody that, for example, sacrifices the balance and makes the glaze gummy?
I think the difference is definitely trial and error and being able to take constructive feedback as well. I can guarantee you this creation was not made by one person. Very likely multiple, very bright individuals making different iterations and changing it and evolving it during the process.
Also being passionate about food. And when I say passionate I’m not going to be vague - I’m talking about eating a lot of different foods, almost constantly. And deconstructing the flavours or the textures as you taste it, and really trying to get down to the fundamentals of things.
A lot of times when we eat something, or we experience something, it tends to be recalled in a blurb – and that’s fair. I feel like one of the things that’s important when it comes to learning from experience and being inspired by other people’s creations is being able to really eat the different parts of a pastry - take it apart, eat the individual pieces separately, then eat the whole thing again.
Then you start realizing why each part was the rationale behind why each piece of cake, or pastry cream, or this flavour, was part of this cake. It’s very intentional, and it’s very unlikely that you just slap a few items together and then it’s good.
For those businesses who would make certain sacrifices for the sake of aesthetics I think that’s fine. You know, you want to take good photos. I get that.
But for us, it’s always flavour number one. And when we name a product and take a photo on Instagram, it will be the same thing as when they come to our store.
If we’re selling a chocolate-almond croissant, and taste-wise there’s no chocolate and there’s no almond, that’s not cool. I feel sometimes when people name something or develop a pastry, they don’t take into consideration meeting that expectation.
For example, when we were planning for the winter menu in October, we wanted to add cranberry to one of our pastries. When it went through the first phase of feedback, within the context that we were using it in, the cranberry was too tart and lacked complexity. So we switched it for another fruit.
You just don’t know until you do it. It could sound amazing in your head but there’s always going to be a distance between a concept and how it manifests in real life.
Sounds like life in general.
Yeah, pastry is life.
Pastry is life, man.
I can tell, just listening to you talk. But did you even imagine you’d be doing this now?
No. No way.
What were your initial plans?
I remember having a “mid-twenty crisis” of what I wanted to do. I thought, “Oh my god, what am I doing with my life? I need to do something. I need to move. Right now I don’t know if I’m moving forwards or backwards.”
So I started researching graduate programs, and one of the things that interested me was business and psychology. I applied for the program, got into Adlar University in Vancouver and did two years of that, but then this opportunity came up, essentially. I finished the course but I didn’t finish my thesis.
Now it’s not to say I’m not using the skills that I’ve learned during that process, but I guess it’s to say, like what I said earlier, “What you conceptualize in your head doesn’t always work out in real life.”
And sometimes what seems to be a mistake in hindsight, will change, depending on your circumstances. And so, even if it sounds like a bad idea then, it will change. It’s never static when it comes to decisions that you have made.
Are things more clear to you now?
By comparison? I wouldn’t go that far.
Looking in from outside, it seems like you have things figured out.
I’m going to be completely authentic and very truthful about it – I think nobody has it together completely. I think most people have experiences are very similar internally – that feeling of, “What am I doing?”
And I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but it’s not. It’s more about being comfortable in the unknown, almost.
I feel like everyone is constantly feeling that. Of course for some people, it's more of a learning curve to be more comfortable in more ambiguity and more of the unknown. Because I feel there’s more clarity on where the unknowns are. But they’re still unknowns.
My prof had said in the past, “There’s a lot of things you don’t even know that you don’t know.” And honestly that’s how most people operate. Of course that’s scary, but that’s just the fact of life.
I think it helps that ultimately you will fail. Ultimately, you will stumble and you’d better get good at it. I think that’s where my philosophy of listening to people’s feedback comes from - just trying to get in touch with your blind spot as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
That was something you didn’t know. It’s like a gift that uncovered itself.
Exactly. And that’s why it’s a privilege when someone trusts you enough and cares enough as a stranger or as a human being to give you feedback.
And so the act of it - I appreciate it. Digesting it and really implementing it is the later steps.
Even if it can come off as being extremely rude, it’s up to you to figure out the intent and why.
Yeah, exactly, right? You know, when people give us feedback, most of the time I don’t think it’s really about the product. It’s about their day.
Like when they say, “The latte’s not hot enough.” It really doesn’t mean, “The latte’s not hot enough.” It’s like, “Fuck. I had a shitty day. I can’t believe I can’t even get this latte to be how I like it.”
It’s always about their lived experience. And it’s not about the barista being a bad barista, either - it’s about, “You want a hotter latte? Here you go.” (laughs)
It’s really about care. You know, the barista still has the freedom of choice - regardless of what kind of philosophy or value system someone serving you has. The fact that they’re willing to make it for you and they see it so clearly that it will make you happier… I think it’s deeper than just a transaction.
There’s a very human aspect in terms of the relationship behind foods and also the partaking and eating of food itself. It’s such an easily shared experience, and I feel like food is somewhat of a universal language, you know?
It transcends class, it transcends culture, it transcends, almost, personal bias - that’s huge. Let’s take a very well-loved food in the world - pizza. I can only imagine the select few who don’t like pizza. Either they’re allergic to it or some traumatic event, I don’t even know.
Maybe. But it’s quite something, to have and share with others something that’s widely loved. And that’s kind of rare in a world that’s complex and quite abundant in many things today.
So for me, food - like pastries - transcends a lot of that. You eat it, I eat it, you know this is good. Connection. It doesn’t need to be like, “Who are you? What do you believe in?”
What really matters is we shared an experience, and that’s pretty awesome.