Asian Dessert, Southern Hospitality: Bringing Bubble Tea to Cookeville, Tennessee
A multimedia journalist who recently finished a year documenting homelessness and healthcare across the United States, Lisa Gong has taken a side job handling marketing and social media for Crepe & Creme (Instagram and Facebook), a new Asian dessert shop in her hometown of Cookeville, Tennessee. We discussed introducing boba to a Southern city, trendy Asian foods, and building community through social media along with marketing and social media co-manager Angie Chen.
Cookeville and Customers’ First Impressions
So how did you get involved with the store?
While Angie was back home in March, her mom told us about this new boba cafe she was going to manage. The owners are couple named Bryan and Karen who also own Fuji, a sushi/hibachi restaurant in town. They originally named the cafe e-Sweet*, which didn’t make sense to us. It sounded very early-2000s, when people were hyped about the novelty of the internet. So we thought about something simple like Crepe & Creme instead. We had to draw up the logo that night because the e-Sweet signs had already been ordered. We also created the Instagram and Facebook accounts at the same time to make sure we owned the handle of whatever name we chose. (We considered Crepe & Cream at first, but @crepeandcream was already taken!)
Bryan got the idea from a relative in Boston who is executing the concept in a place with a larger Asian population. He wanted to bring that back to Cookeville.
*The owners later told us it was named for their kids Evelyn and Evan, but they conceded that it wouldn’t make sense for anybody but them.
Can you tell us a little bit about your hometown?
Cookeville is a micropolitan city according to Wikipedia and it sits right between Nashville and Knoxville, two major Tennessee cities. So Cookeville is a little hub for the smaller cities around it. Demographically it’s 90% white, conservative, Christian, people with strong pride for our community. Many have families that have been connected to the area for a long time.
For food options, we have a road informally called Restaurant Row. A bunch of chain restaurants dominate that food scene. People really love and are loyal to the local restaurants we do have, though.
In terms of international food, Cookeville has maybe 7-8 sit-down Asian restaurants. We wouldn’t call them too authentic by East or West Coast standards, especially. The Asian community here is pretty small (2% of Cookeville!), so Asian restaurants here cater more toward American palettes.
How did people respond to the food?
A distinct quality about desserts, and especially Asian desserts, is that they have such an emphasis on appearances. In this Southern, rural environment, Asian desserts are often things no one has seen before. And this creates hype. We do get opinions where people say the food is too frivolous. Our crepes have had a good response maybe because they are a somewhat familiar food and there’s nowhere else to really get them except IHOP.
It’s IHOB now.
Yeah, we were thinking we should have gotten on that meme. We could have been like, “We’re Burger & Creme now!” Anyway, we are a dessert place, and naturally we focus on aesthetics. We have noticed that the demographics for our Facebook likes are 90% female and 10% male. We think maybe it’s because we’re both female and know how to appeal to our own demographic well but not to others’ as effectively. Maybe in the subconscious of machismo guys, they don’t want to engage with something so aesthetically focused. Don’t know the psychology behind it, just a thought.
The “Life is sweeter” sign is pretty pink in neon.
Yeah, we also like featuring customers on social media and maybe it’s a more female proclivity to want to post pictures of yourself at a place. If we ever get a second location, we’ll change the sign color to blue so guys can pose in front of it and still feel macho. Pink is an attention-grabbing color, but we didn’t really think about the gender divide we’d create.
It looks good though, really sharp. The food looks great too.
Thank you! We’re proud of the slogan. People like the concept.
If people are new customers, the rolled ice cream is our best seller, probably because it’s summertime. Repeat customers tend toward the boba in a similar way to how people pick up coffee from their favorite coffee shop. The crepes always look beautiful, and it’s hard for boba not to look good.
Designing Digital and Physical Appeal: Social Media and Trendy Food
On that note it’s true that those three foods are aesthetic-driven. Even though they come from different countries, they might be popular for similar reasons. What does it mean to have a trendy product, and what do you look for in adding an item?
We’ve discussed adding egg waffles from Hong Kong because they fit the same theme as our other foods – visually interesting and fun to eat. This theme also leads to many of our customers being young adults and families with children.
We opened the place with an idea of catering to college kids since we are located right by Tennessee Tech’s campus, but we really underestimated the love from middle school and high school kids since it’s the summer. We love them. Social media is such an integral part of their lives, and many share pictures of their visits. Having visually appealing food means that sometimes you don’t have to advertise yourself.
We were really surprised by how much people like the light bulb cups that our drinks come in. At one point we were out of stock, and customers were disappointed and messaging us asking when they’d return. We buy them in bulk, 30,000 cups at a time, which takes a month. When we made a social media post about not having light bulb cups, we saw a drop in visitors.
The shop is a lot more popular than we anticipated, and we think a lot of that can be attributed to having visually interesting food and modern social media strategies.
Marketing and Multiculturalism: Asian American Food and Local Community
How do you think the food being Asian and new relates to the trendiness? If you were to open a traditional ice cream place you probably wouldn’t try all these gimmicks. Do you get some freedom in offering something so new?
The options here are pretty saturated in terms of American food. We’re bringing the community something they don’t have access to without driving an hour and a half away. That gives us a lot of freedom in terms of being able to operate without having pressure from competition.
We were scared the food would be too exotic, but our feedback on the food has been overwhelmingly positive. Some community members are actually really loyal to the local Asian restaurants. Asian cuisine is a staple in cities across the country, and even in a small Southern town, people want the ability to try it.
Most of the foods you offer have culinary roots in Western cuisine. As an Asian American, how does your identity play into the work you do at the shop?
When writing social media posts, we do it from the perspective that we’re just Cookevillians that know Asian food. We don’t necessarily represent ourselves as Asian American because social media language for businesses is generally pretty race-neutral. One small thing Lisa has been doing is using “y’all” more since our customers are largely white Southerners. Angie already does this normally, but even though Lisa was born and raised in Cookeville, she never got used to saying it until now.
We do stress that the foods are international to explain why they are so extravagant and out of the norm. When people see elaborate foods as new ideas from Western communities, they think the foods are frivolous. Our menu makes more sense when we contextualize that the foods come from Asian cultures.
How do you foster a sense of community at the shop?
Community is really big here. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, you always see trending restaurants that people will travel for, but they’re always in NY or LA, so it’s easy to think that somehow these places are inherently better than our little old town. We’re here to say that, no, Cookeville is small, but it’s a sweet, charming place to be in. We think this idea is something that can resonate with anyone who’s lived here, and the sign is a little reminder of our hometown pride. The way the cafe is set up encourages people to come and hang out, and many have told us that this is where they’ll bring out-of-town friends or come to meet up. We love that! There are couches and chairs to lounge in, games to play, and WiFi if you’re just trying to work or chill. We love reposting customer’s photos that we find because we think the element of enjoying another’s company is just as important as eating itself. That’s a sentiment we believe both Southern and Asian cultures can stand behind.
When I think about perceptions of Asian restaurants I think of stories about bad service and foreignness, but people are reaching out to the store.
Maybe part of it’s because when they first come in, they have westernized ideals of the food. Our cafe name has French origins, the way we talk on social media is race neutral, and even though we are Asians, they don’t see us. Most of the workers are white college students, and maybe that gives customers a sense of familiarity. Other Asian restaurants in Cookeville reference Asian influences in their names like Rice Time Bistro or Panda Garden.
When I did research on upscale Asian restaurants I found a similar thing. There were clear symbols of exoticism but also things to comfort clients like a white host or western utensils and menus.
Yeah, fusion restaurants would probably do better than traditional Asian restaurants here. Even in SF, somebody who doesn’t speak Chinese wouldn’t be as comfortable in a Chinatown restaurant.
All the workers at the beginning were Asian, so we were worried customers would think it’s a weird Asian place and not want to eat somewhere with so many Asians. But we were lucky. On the first day, a group of Tech students came in and left us five-star reviews, so we started off on a positive note.
The restaurant kind of has its own genre. I don’t think that you would serve a traditional bean soup dessert. Do you ever feel limited needing to serve foods that keep people comfortable?
We started out by keeping our foods closer to what community members want to eat. The food we serve is Asian, but they’re Asian twists on western foods.
At the same time, the owners are not shying away from stuff to keep people comfortable. They really enjoy their art and experimenting with how to bring their ideas to the community. Running a family-owned business, the owners have the freedom to introduce customers to new experiences such as our matcha red bean drink or strong citrus lemon tea. These flavors are based more on Asian than American flavor palettes. Items must appeal to patrons, but the owners believe that culture is meant to be shared.
Over here in the SF Bay Area, the traditional boba chains are disappearing, people are upgrading their drinks with fresh ingredients and incorporating other cuisines. What does the future look like for Crepe & Creme?
Because we’ve gotten considerable feedback on it, we now have gluten-free crepes, a lot of vegan bubble tea options, a vegan rolled ice cream option, and we’re working on vegan crepes. That’s something we’re focusing on because even though we’re a small town, our community should still be able to have options for different dietary restrictions that are typically found in bigger cities. There are groups of people here who are legitimately allergic to gluten or choose to go vegan for moral reasons (sustainability, animal rights). They aren’t being difficult or wanting to avoid foods for health fads. We’ve had to do a lot of research. For instance, honey technically isn’t vegan since it’s an animal product, but we buy honey from companies that are humane to bees. (We also try to buy local ingredients when we can!)
Since we’re not a franchise, we call the shots. We adapt the menu, respond to feedback and constantly improve our items. We’re in a position to be dynamic as Cookeville grows. We’re thinking about community events like paint nights or open mics. We’d also like to do some dog appreciation posts on our social media.
Even though our foods are trendy and flashy (literally), we’d like to be known as a place that fosters community and shares culture, not just a fad. We want to be your study sessions, hometown meetups, and after school/work treats. We want to be a reason that life is sweeter in Cookeville for more than just the gram (but also def for the gram).