Knowing the toll the pandemic has taken people worldwide, Jason Wang was inspired to create a “unique and audacious” experience for people to look forward to when restrictions eased.
And now that Ontario’s eased into full capacity, Wang’s vision has come to reality with his new innovative cafe and shop in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, Benkei Hime.
Looking at the menu, Benkei Hime features a variety of drinks, from fruity teas to flavourful dessert milk teas. But drinks are only one part of the store.
Unlike other bubble tea spots, visitors can browse through lifestyle merchandise and accessories, from skateboards with vibrant grip tape to colourful cactus candles created by a team of young artists from across the globe. It’s a place where visitors can immerse themselves in a cultural experience and leave with a new perspective, Wang says.
“We wanted to push the boundaries between beverage, clothing, accessories and sports equipment … whatever you’re interested in, you’ll find something you like (here),” said Wang, emphasizing the importance to him of representing not only Asia but Toronto’s local communities as well.
In the year leading up to opening, Wang was living in South Korea. It’s there he began to assemble a group of creatives across Asia and Canada, from architects to graphic designers to help plan the creation of a store instilled in art and unlike any other.
Fast forward to March 2022 and those blueprints and designs are now visible at the store. Upon entry, guests stand in awe of a large orange Japanese-inspired archway covered in neon. The tables were also custom made, designed by an artist from Hong Kong who got the idea from watching Michael Jordan play table tennis in a nightclub.
Given Toronto has been Wang’s hometown for the past 20 years, he also felt it was important to integrate parts of the city in the store design. Adjacent to the archway sits a large interactive art piece of a subway car, inspired by the TTC, with subway handles hanging from the ceiling and a station sign that reads, ‘Eaton Station.’
Connecting east and west, Wang says his goal is to give exposure to homegrown artists as well as those across the world, as a way to introduce people in a cultural melting pot.
“We have so many different designers from different countries and they (all) contribute to this brand and we hope that we can collaborate with more designers in the future,” said Wang.
So far, the team has launched locations in cities in China and South Korea, with Toronto being the first North American location, having just opened its doors in early March.
While the spot can be enjoyed by any mall-goer, Wang says Gen Z was also top of mind in creation of the space — noting that young people have struggled a lot during the pandemic, from figuring out their studies and careers to trying to find ways to express themselves creatively.
“Hopefully, we can put a smile on someone’s face and every time they walk in … The passion is not about making money, it’s really to impact people’s lives during the pandemic or even post-pandemic,” said Wang.
Benkei Hime is looking to add 60 to 70 new products per year to continue featuring products produced by new artists to give more a platform.
They’re expected to open a second location at CF Markville in summer 2022.