Hello Kitty Cafe is a stunning success for its small-business owners

At Irvine’s unique Hello Kitty Grand Cafe, fans often line up to wait more than an hour on weekends for afternoon tea, and reservations are booked through August. Few seem to mind.

This is just a really happy place,” says Allan Tea, a co-owner of the thriving business in Irvine Spectrum Center. “Most people walk into the store with a smile; they come in happy and leave happy.”

The cafe, with its hot and cold beverages and array of pink pastries and finger sandwiches, opened in 2018 as the first brick-and-mortar Hello Kitty enterprise in the United States. Since then, it has had striking success and exceptional reviews from critics and visitors alike.

At her 10th birthday with 16 of her besties, Alexa Lai says, “I loved the tea stand that came to our table with all those little cakes and cookies shaped like Hello Kitty and her friends.”

Iconic character, prime location

Hello Kitty Grand Cafe at Irvine Spectrum Center opened in 2018.

Tea and his business partner, Candace, were married three years ago after meeting on a blind date in 2015. “It definitely helps to work with someone you’re a partner with in life. You have the same goals,” Candace says.

The two attribute the buzz around the Hello Kitty Cafe to a mix of factors that began with the worldwide popularity of its wholesome cartoon mascot.

Hello Kitty, created in 1974 by Sanrio, based in Japan, resembles a cross between a big white cat with whiskers and a tail and a little girl with black eyes, a big red bow and no mouth. Over the past 50 years, the adorable character has won millions of worldwide fans and inspired tens of billions of dollars of merchandise sales.

“Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth, so she doesn’t talk,” Allan says. “The brand likes to say that because she has no voice, many people can connect with her and interpret her personality any way they like.”

Allan says he often sees mothers who grew up with Hello Kitty in the 1980s and 1990s bringing their daughters for tea in the Bow Room, with its tufted pink velvet booths and white marble bar, to share in the rosy nostalgia. “Often there will be grandmothers, too, so we’ll have three generations of Hello Kitty fans,” he says.

Enthusiasts take selfies next to the cafe’s Hello Kitty statue and shop for rare Hello Kitty collectibles, from T-shirts and plush toys to mugs and decorative Pyrex storage bowls.

A second key to the cafe’s success is its well-trafficked setting, next to the Spectrum’s Giant Wheel, Candace says. “The Spectrum is one of the best shopping centers in Southern California, and that has really helped business owners like us,” she adds.

America’s only Grand Cafe

Hello Kitty stores and pop-up cafes have appeared in malls before. Yet the Irvine site remains the nation’s only Grand Cafe that’s a Bow Room by day and speakeasy in the evenings. After 5 p.m., the staff puts away the mini-doughnuts and finger sandwiches and starts serving made-for-Instagram cocktails in big, white Hello Kitty-themed glasses and mugs.

Summer is their busiest season, so the excitement will be growing around the cafe with fans decked out in Hello Kitty gear. “We’re going to be working hard to make sure everything is super-cute to create memorable experiences for all,” Allan says.