Wil Fang: The man behind the cookie, how he rolls with the punches and his plans outside of food and the city

Wil Fang: The man behind the cookie, how he rolls with the punches and his plans outside of food and the city
Source: Carbon

A cookie can be so underrated as a sweet snack or a modest dessert – a sleeper hit if made just right or a substantial disappointment if not.

Here in Hong Kong, entrepreneur Wil Fang is a cookie lover just like the rest of us, but he’s doing something a little different. Inspired by nostalgia and the flavors of the US, his first home, Fang is bringing his favorite American foods to the city. His first venture in Hong Kong, Cookie DPT, specializes in American-style home-baked cookies. But, Fang didn’t stop with cookies. From Carbs, Fang’s homage to NYC pizzerias, to Rollie, his West Coast-style hand roll sushi bar, the man isn’t short of ideas when it comes to introducing Hong Kong to new flavors.

TMS caught up with Fang to see what he’s been up to since we spoke last about two years ago. The answer is – a lot.

Wil Fang grew up in New York City with a mother in the restaurant business. However, Fang didn’t always want to work in the food industry. He made a successful career working in fashion, which eventually brought him from NYC over to Asia.

Living in Taipei for a time, Fang missed some of the flavors and foods he enjoyed in the States. For example, American-style cookies weren’t something easily found in Asia, so Fang began baking his own at home, and the cookies eventually made it onto his first cafe’s menu at Coffee Department in Taipei.

Fang’s love of food – and especially cookies – explains his eventual career shift from fashion into the food industry. “A lot of people try to separate, right? But for me, I want my work and my personal life to essentially be one in the same,” explains Fang. “Not to be too cliche, but if you can do all the things you love for work, then it makes work a lot less work.

“So the food is where that came from, because I originally was in the fashion industry, which is still one of my passions. But that was definitely work, right? … I just like eating food and [that was] my family’s background back in the States. It was never something I aspired to do as a career, but Hong Kong afforded me the opportunity to incorporate things I really love like cookies and pizzas and that kind of decadent feel-good food into actual work.”

Cookie DPT first opened in Hong Kong back in 2018. Since its launch, Fang has been looking to expand on his original idea of bringing American homestyle cookies to Hong Kong. There are plenty of classic and new flavors to try out, from traditional choices like chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin to decadent styles like the Brownie Filled Chocolate Chip. But the fun doesn’t stop with the cookies.

“So we’re doing much more than just cookies,” says Fang. “We’ve first added a coffee element to our flagship, which is very important to us because coffee was always something that we originally had launched with and wanted to continue.” Fang’s first cookie recipes originally debuted at his Taipei coffee shop, Coffee Department. People were so enamored with the cookies, it only made sense to build out on that aspect.

Now, it’s all about expanding Cookie DPT’s cookie flavors and other baked offerings. “We’ve been experimenting over the last year and a half now with other baked goods,” says Fang. “So, adding freshly baked stuff or adding things like muffins, banana bread, cinnamon rolls, brownies and just other very American, Western homestyle baked goods.

“And then, now, we’ve also had breakfast. Again, very Western, American – like pancakes and eggs and bacon … essentially like [what you would get at] a diner. Like at Denny’s or something like that. Again, all comfort food that I’m very familiar with.”

Fang continues, “That’s typically the only type of stuff we launch. It’s stuff that I really believe in, and I think is missing in Hong Kong. On top of that, we’ve started experimenting with stuff outside of our wheelhouse. So, over the last couple of years, we’ve done drops, like doughnuts and cupcakes and even cakes … We’re experimenting with even different formats of more international baked goods or pastries. So rather than a homemade American brownie or cookie or something, we’re looking at French pastries … but making it our style.

[We aren’t] becoming a French pastry shop or anything like that, but there are definitely a lot of really tasty European treats out there, baked goods that I think we can put a little Cookie DPT spin on.”

Apart from coffee shop necessities, Fang is dipping his toes in the waters of other American culinary staples. “Now Cookie DPT is serving pancakes … like in the same style from my local diner back home. We’re serving New York-style bagels because, at least for me – no offense to any of the other bagel companies in Hong Kong – but no one really has a true New York-style bagel in Hong Kong. Ours, I think, is pretty close. I would still go for a New York bagel any day, but I think we’re getting there.”

Missing some of his favorite foods from back home has played a huge part in Fang’s creative process when it comes to building out his businesses.

“I think nostalgia plays such a big part in the DPT,” explains Fang. “Whether it’s cookies and cakes or flavors, whether it’s American or local. We’ve used nostalgia quite a lot in creating our products. Not just because we know people can relate to it, but we know that’s what people miss and want.

“So I think anything that makes you feel good and makes you remember something, whether it’s a part of your life, a trip you went on or a place in time. So much of our inspiration comes from traveling, different eras, pop culture, current events. So, aside from a full-blown, sit-down full-service restaurant, we’re kind of everything in-between.”

But, of course, it all started with cookies, so Fang assures us that those aren’t going anywhere. “We’re planning to do a lot more in the year to come, but also refine what we’ve done thus far. And this year … is really the year that we get back to basics, but really start to put a lot more emphasis and focus on our cookies again. So, as we’re expanding the different product offerings, it’s really only sort of part of our priorities and our time, but we want to really start to go back into what made us who we are, which is our cookie expanse. So expanding on our signature line, expanding on our different cookie formats.”

Talking Carbs

After Cookie DPT had gotten on its feet and become something of an institution in Hong Kong, Fang decided it was time to branch out into another American food experience – pizza. While “traditional” pizza has its roots in Italy, Fang was more interested in exploring the Americanization of pizza as comfort food. And, of course, for a New Yorker living on the other side of the world, pizza is one of the foods you might miss the most.

“Carbs was a big project for the summer of last year,” says Fang. “It’s been something I’ve been planning … [I was] hoping to have a venue to launch in Hong Kong my own sort of pizza shop, inspired by my favorite pizza shops from New York.

“So the pizza itself comes from a couple of my go-to spots when I was living back in New York City. Combine that with some New York street/hip-hop culture, a little bit of a streetwear vibe to it as well, designed [with] a little bit more New York-like pizzeria kind of look. So, I got to include a bunch of different elements that are sort of personal to me.”

But, again, nostalgia played a big role in the direction of Fang’s new project, Carbs.

“The menu itself, there’s also just comfort food that I miss from back in the States,” Fang points out. “So not all of it is necessarily from New York. Some of it actually comes from inspiration from my favorite spots on the West Coast. You know, like Southern California. But yeah, the vibe and the concept is primarily New York.

“And the name, I think, states everything from pizza (which is obviously carbs) pastas, sandwiches and then even some desserts and, of course, some Cookie DPT influence, with ice cream sandwiches, milkshakes and stuff like that. Super easy, sort of grab-and-go food. And it’s really meant for that takeout kind of customer or just a quick stop-by – grab a slice of pizza or grab a quick pasta for lunch. So that was a fun project last year.”

Last summer, Hong Kong was still under many COVID precautionary measures, which was a hard time for many businesses, especially those just getting started.

“Obviously COVID has sort of put a little damper on the launch of it in terms of the first year really trying to build momentum,” says Fang, “but we’re really hoping that things will improve this summer with COVID. And we can get Carbs back on track.”

Pivoting from Cookie DPT to the pizzeria-based concept of Carbs was a natural next step, Fang shares. “We were able to use a lot of the same techniques and facilities and stuff because at the end of the day, we’re making, whether it’s cookie … or pizza, dough. It was a very easy sort of decision [and] pizza was a nice transition away from cookies.”

Another element that has helped Fang succeed in his endeavors has been the support of other restauranteurs in the industry.  “I reached out to my favorite pizza shop, and the owner was super willing to help me,” recalls Fang. “I even tested the Carbs … pizza dough in his oven, you know? So it was amazing to me.

“Just because you have the same product or technique as your competitor doesn’t mean you both can’t thrive. You can help each other and work together.”

Rollie-ing with the punches

With the launch of both Cookie DPT and Carbs, Fang was ready for another business venture, which he and his team launched toward the end of 2021. Again playing on foods that Americans hold dear, Fang opened Rollie, a West Coast-inspired sushi eaterie. Yes, sushi is a Japanese specialty, but California is well-known for having its own special take on the dish.

“My family has quite a rich background in American-Japanese food,” says Fang. “My family used to own a couple of different American-Japanese restaurants back in the States. You know, we say American-Japanese because it’s not anything close to traditional Japanese. And really not anything that close to what you would find in Hong Kong, which is not necessarily traditional Japanese, but more mainstream Japanese. It is very, very like Western slash American-Japanese food.

“We’ve taken Rollie and even sort of made it [an] even more specialized concept where it’s an American-Japanese hand roll bar. So I guess what that means is our signature item is in a hand roll format. But not your traditional Japanese hand roll, which is kind of like a cone. Ours is actually almost a taco format, right? So again, very Western-influenced.

“In fact, the design element here is actually like East meets West. So our tagline is ‘The Far East meets the West Coast.’ So not so New York-centric. This is more like LA vibes, like Venice Beach, Southern California – like sunsets and palm trees, but mixed with very traditional Japanese.

“But our food combines both elements. Of course, we have fresh seafood and fresh fish, just like you would get in any sushi bar. But we combine it with different elements like flavors and sauces. Even sushi that’s not fish – we have a roll that has teriyaki beef in it, you know, that kind of stuff. So very catered to a Western palate. But I think it’s fun for both local cultures as well as international cultures.”

Although he had a pretty clear concept and vibe that he wanted to go for, there’s an element of authenticity needed for sushi. So, Fang once again reached out to experienced colleagues in the restaurant industry as well as his family.

“When I was opening Rollie, as much as I have family background back in the States about sushi restaurant stuff, I don’t have technical experience, right?

“Of course, our chefs that we’ve hired have that knowledge, but I needed a perspective myself, right? To make sure that the concept is mine. So I reached out to a lot of my friends here who are in the industry, the Japanese food industry, to get their advice, and they’re all very willing to offer advice – even criticism, which is fine by me.

“I remember talking to my mom and getting our menu from the restaurant that we’re currently running back in the States and taking inspiration from that … It was kind of fun just to talk to my family about this new project here that has really deep inspiration from my childhood.”

Thinking outside of food

Moving beyond his food ventures, Fang has begun dabbling in one-of-a-kind spaces. More specifically, all-in-one spaces. A new kind of social space, Fang’s Carbon is a lifestyle venue with the aim to combine live entertainment, food, culture, health and wellness into one space.

“On the Carbon project, which wasn’t Carbon when I came on – it was just the idea, and we developed it into Carbon – was also sort of by accident. I hadn’t dreamt of opening an 8000-square-foot restaurant, bar, lounge, rooftop club or anything like that. But when I saw the industry professionals that were part of this project, I knew it [had] quite a lot of potential to really make an impact in Hong Kong.”

But, COVID again put a damper on things. “It was during the beginning of COVID, right? So we weren’t even sure how long it would last,” recalls Fang. “So the project did experience quite a lot of delays and hardships from COVID not going away.”

COVID has also had a major impact on how Carbon has run, considering it hasn’t been able to reach its full potential with restrictions still in place. “T​​he people who have been with us along the way and the senior management team that we’ve had from day one, they really believe that Carbon is what Hong Kong is missing,” says Fang. “And then we have an all-star team that can really make it thrive. I think what everyone has been waiting for [and] chomping at the bit for is to really see Carbon’s potential.

“Since we’ve opened, even since the project’s inception, which was like two years ago, but since we opened … we haven’t been able to operate restriction-free … So we really haven’t even seen what Carbon can do, and I think that is what keeps people motivated. [We need to] really see what we can do before making any real decisions on the brand and the concept.

“So right now everything is looking up, knock on wood. You know, as restrictions loosen and hopefully Hong Kong also opens up, you’ll really be able to see what Carbon is all about.”

As for the future of all of these projects, Fang says, “It’s been really hard … to stay focused with all these different things, but what I’ve tried to do is really just spend as much of my time and energy right now (as [I] essentially can’t really leave Hong Kong) to … build a foundation for all these projects.

“So … someday, hopefully soon when travel does open up … I can focus more on how do we expand these businesses outside of Hong Kong, if at all, right? So really trying to build a strong foundation is how I’m staying focused while I’m here and … make the most of my time.”