First Asian-style café comes to East Lansing

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Koala’s sign on the window with its grand opening date. Photo: Zimo Wang

The circular, white sign with a smiling Koala decorating a new café on East Lansing Grand River is hard to miss. It marks the first Asian-style café that not only serves Asian-style food, but also provides a leisure environment in East Lansing: Koala Bakery & Café, a chain from a store in China.

Koala Bakery & Café had its soft opening April. 18. Two years ago, it was just a delivery service operated by a couple: Matt Chen and Qing Wang, Chen’s spouse.

“I started to bake because my husband likes sweets,” Wang said. “Then, I shared with my family and received positive feedback. After daily practice, my potential for baking has been developed naturally.”

Chen soon realized the market potential of East Lansing because of the diversity of Michigan State University. He then decided to turn his interest into business.

At first, however, Wang and Chen lived 20 minutes from East Lansing. It was inconvenient to deliver food.

“To solve this problem,” Chen said. “We simply moved to East Lansing.”

In addition to the transportation problem, another difficulty emerged. Koala’s primary products are mille crepe cake and fruit Daifuku mochi. These desserts are made of fruit. Ensuring the food stayed fresh was key.

Wang said she would throw all the leftovers in the garbage bin to guarantee all of their food was made that day.

Koala’s mille crepe cake. Photo: Zimo Wang

“The slice of mille crepe cake should be fried every day,” she said. “I started to work on this from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. since we opened the physical store.”

Hongming Gu, a sophomore in economics at MSU, became a Koala customer since its inception in 2016. She said Koala’s food is not only delicious, but also authentic.

“No matter how many times I ordered, Koala’s food always tastes the same,” Gu said.

Chen decided to make it a chain from a friend’s store in China because of a lack of Asian-style cafés in East Lansing.

“East Lansing has Starbucks and Chapelure. Most people would bring their laptops and books to study in there like a library,” he said. “Then why can’t we establish a café that would fit Asian style, which enables us to play board games or hangout with friends in a familiar environment.”

A student is studying in Koala. Photo: Zimo Wang

Chen repeatedly mentioned he wants to influence his customers with positivity through a healthy, clean environment in the store. The theme of Koala’s decoration is white and simple.

Chen also said the location of Koala is the most suitable place for it because the store is across the street from Oriental Mart, a supermarket that provides Asian goods to attract Asian customers.

“If Oriental Mart customers can see our sign on the window by any chance, it would increase their chances of  entering our store one day,” he said. “The presence of the store can help our brand be more well-known.”

Besides those factors, service is also important to convey positive energy to customers.

“I can remember customers’ names and match their faces if they return a couple of times,” Chen said. “Some of them, I can even tell their addresses.” He randomly picked a guest that he knew and spoke out her address.

Koala will have its grand opening Sept. 9. To prepare for it, Chen plans to create new recipes based on what they have already got. Right now. Koala sells appetizer and sweets to its customers. In the future, he plans to launch a new recipe: purple rice burrito.

“Using purple rice to replace white rice will be a healthier option because it has more protein,” Chen said. “It is more acceptable for young people who like to work out in the gym.”

When it comes to a long-term plan, Chen said he expects local East Lansing residents to experience and appreciate his Asian-style café one day.

“After all, the majority of people here are local residents,” Chen said. “So, their acceptance is also important.”

Koala is located at 2843 East Grand River Avenue STE 166 and is open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.