Though Taipei sits in the heart of East Asia, it often feels overlooked for those who live here. If you're coming from one direction, you're probably on your way to Bangkok; the other, and you'll likely spend your holiday in the internationally famous locales of Seoul or Tokyo. The population of Taipei is about 2.7 million, which sounds sizable until you compare it to Bangkok's 8 million.
We haven't achieved the same level of hipness and popularity as other travel destinations in the region, but we know it, and we kind of love it.
But an interesting phenomenon has been happening recently. Many international and sometimes niche businesses are testing out their markets here. In June, Jurassic World premiered here two days before it got to the States. Before that, the small Maryland- and Virginia-based restaurant chain Honey Pig Korean opened their first location outside of the DC-Baltimore metro area on the opposite side of the world—in Taipei. And going back further, the US West Coast's beloved In-N-Out Burger opened a pop-up here for a dizzying two hours, sold out after a few hundred burgers, and left. (The void was soon filled by a total rip-off from Shanghai called CaliBurger.)
With all of these events occurring I thought there was nothing that would surprise me. A Texas Roadhouse? Sure, huge chain … but it happened. More poutine shops? They're popping up all over.
But then Voodoo Doughnut came.
The second I heard that the Portland doughnut shop with a major cult following might open here, I checked to make sure they hadn't become a chain in the States. And it turns out, they hadn't really blown up, outside of a few new stores in Portland and one in Denver. Though I find Taipei to be an increasingly hip place with the ball rolling quickly into the 21st century, I instantly thought that someone should ask "Why Taipei?" And I decided to find the answer myself.
After asking some preliminary questions to the main headquarters in Portland, I rolled down our city's amazing subway system to the bustling neighborhood of Xinyi to talk to Kevin Lee, co-owner of Voodoo Doughnut Taipei (also known as Voodoo Doughnut Six). Sitting pond-side at the edge of Taipei's Songshan Creative Park, you're almost transported to another continent. In a town where everything is popping up to look new and cutting edge, Voodoo has kept to its rusty, intentionally-don't-give-a-fuck look. Hell, after the interview they asked if some of the artists from my studio could toss some work up in the store. No one does that here. Here's what Kevin had to say about his choice of Taipei.
MUNCHIES: So what is the core philosophy behind Voodoo Doughnut? Kevin Lee: From my perspective, it is a unique experience of creating pastries. The two founders, specifically Tres [Shannon], are very artistic people. [Shannon] sets the culture and wants each shop to be more unique than a big franchise restaurant.
How is it different than what you'd expect in Taiwan? The core idea is that people [here] ask, "Why?" [But] I say, "Why not? It might be fun." You can get the culture by working the shop. People value the human, old-fashioned handmade food and the [natural] variation because it's handmade. It's going to look different every time. Every decorator has their own style, within [Voodoo Doughnut's] rules, but there's differentiation.
How did you make the jump from Portland to Taipei? Me and the other partner—I lived in Oregon for eight years, he lived there for 15 or 16—we'd been to the shop a lot in the past and we just liked the brand and the product. Once I moved back to Taiwan and the other partner moved back, we decided to go over the dessert scene. With doughnuts, I didn't like any doughnut shop I found in Taipei. No insult [to them], but why not have a good donut shop here and tone down the sugariness? We also thought, this is going to be a great experience. This is going to be a good place for people to socialize. You don't need a week of planning to hang out with friends in Taipei, it's more like, "Hey, we're here, let's go and not spend a lot of money."
Whose idea was it? How was the contact made? We had one conversation, and I guess you could say we shared the idea. Before we talked to them, we didn't know [what would happen]. I flew over and met with them, and it basically kicked off from there. Then it was time and finding the location.
Voodoo Doughnut has a large cult following in the States. Do you think this will carry over in Taiwan? It's hard for me to say yes or no, but a 100-percent Taiwanese customer probably won't get it as much as they do in the States. It might not translate [fully]. But there are a lot of foreigners and expats who know this, and a lot of them will come in. Up to this point, a lot of our local customers have been coming in because they think the voodoo doll is cute, or ugly—either way, they're interested. There are also new flavors they've seen. We're going to gradually try to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We want to give people the real Voodoo Doughnut experience.
Will the Asian expansion continue? The next stop is Japan. I don't think it's [just] Asia. Austin is next after this one, and they want to expand in the US as well. Expanding in Asia is about finding the right partner. There are a lot of cities in the States they haven't covered. I mean, Japan has been on their list for a while. As far as I know they get a lot of requests. To make things authentic, we need to ship a lot of ingredients over. We spent four or five months just fixing problems that came up unexpectedly, getting things here, [working around] Taiwan's laws. There have been a lot of food problems in Taiwan, so they change the laws regularly. We just have to keep up with that.
Do you think this will inspire any other companies with a similar vibe to play their cards in Taiwan? I don't know. It has to do with the success of the shop, number one. From the business end, if you're going to open a shop in Asia there are many options. You asked why Asia, but it's more like, why Taiwan? But Taiwanese people are very friendly and willing to try new things.
Dunkin Donuts closed rapidly in Taiwan, but Krispy Kreme opened up to a huge success. What does Voodoo do differently? What will keep it going? First of all, we don't know the answer of what will make a doughnut shop successful. Instead of focusing on the demand for doughnuts, we focus on the shop experience, and that means many, many things. Maybe later we'll expand and have more products, but you'll come in and have a good time, and that's what we're aiming for. People in Taiwan don't wake up in the morning and think, I hope I have doughnuts for breakfast… But, that's not what we're trying to accomplish here. Instead of following the food trends—in Taiwan there have been several, like every shop selling waffles with ice cream on top—we want to offer steady quality food and service, and we're not looking to open another fifty shops in Taiwan.
Thanks for talking with us.