Saturday night on Pleasant Hill Road, Gwinnett Station strip mall of Duluth, GA, I sit in the warmly lit Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe, nursing my cup of Kumquat Lemon Tea and chatting with old friends. An array of sweet buns, puddings and milk bread in front of us, each a different dance to the palate. It’s midnight and the cafe is still buzzing with night owls of all ages. Outside, the grand opening sign flutters softly against the night wind. The air is heavy with sweet aromas of cakes and pastries, whimsical like a childhood scent of mama’s fresh baked Lotus Pie. We, like most of everyone else here, had picked Sweet Hut for its modern take on some classic Asian snacks, for its lengthy list of cold and hot beverages, and to surrender to the new hype that is Sweet Hut. Enough is not enough.
North Georgians welcomed Sweet Hut’s third location, in Duluth, GA, with open arms. It arrival awakens the once vacant shopping center of Gwinnett Station. Colorful signs of new businesses such as Thai Pad & Coco Sweets, Snow Flakes Tea House, and So Gong Dong Korean Restaurant, slowly filled the hollow commercial area. Currently reigns as the cash cow of the Atlanta Asian dessert market, Sweet Hut Duluth trumps its two elder sister branches (Sweet Hut Buford Hwy and Sweet Hut Midtown) in size and menu. Being twice the square footage of its original cafÈ on Buford Highway, Sweet Hut Duluth was built with a broader dining room, a larger selection of treats, an additional savory menu, and a cake consulting room, where one can discuss cake affairs in private. Rumor has it, the majority of its neighboring businesses signed their lease in hope of tailgating the expected foot traffic Sweet Hut will incur. For the first time in years, the parking lot of Gwinnett Station is populated by local consumers.
Metro Atlantans are no strangers to Asian sweet shops. Local bakeries such as Mozart and White Windmill have been on scene for years. They inspired Atlanta newbies such as Honey Bits, Tree Story, and Paris Baguette. When the first Sweet Hut opened, critics were skeptical. Another bakery?! But we already have so many. Regardless, Sweet Hut sparked and outshined their competitors. Moving beyond the familiar Korean pastries that have become rather redundant, Sweet Hut's kitchen delivered buns and cakes from other parts of Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They brought Seaweed & Bacon Rolls, Pork Sung Bun, Hokkaido Cupcake, Madam Pie, to add along Egg Custard Buns, Red Bean Pastries, and Butterfly Crisps, just to name a few. They brought a refreshing, sweeter change, and they were well received by consumers of all ages. The goal of owner and executive chef Howie Ewe was to make Sweet Hut a household name. The booming success of Sweet Hut has far exceeded Ewe’s expectation, becoming not just a household name, but a second home to many students, business personnel, retirees, and everyone else in between.
Going from the front door of Sweet Hut to arriving at the dining table is a sort of screenplay. Act 1, take a provided basket and tong, make your way down the buffet-like aisles of treats that dare you not to be tempted. Just one more, you say, until you somehow exit the aisles with fifteen different types of bread, all for you. Some personal favorites are the Sweet Ham and Corn Bun, the Taro Pastry, and the Lotus Pastry with Salted Egg Yolk and a reminiscent of Moon Festivals and paper lanterns. I’ve recently gave the Black Pig a chance. Undoubtedly the most unattractive of the bunch, what seems to be a completely burnt product from the oven turns out to be a delicious, lightly sweetened bun filled with bits of crunchy bacon, hence the name. They said once you go Black Pig, well, you guess the rest.
Act 2, the cashier counter. Ranges from two to four young cashiers behind a long counter, these Sweet Hut staffers are eager to help. Behind them, the lunch, snacks and drink menus. On each side of the counter are more puddings, cakes, and custards to further satisfy your sweet tooth. The short novel that is the drink menu is enough to overwhelm you, not to mention the additional choices of drink toppings. It would be wise to select your drink of choice first before entering the wait lines, as the lines move fast. My top selections are the Ume Kumquat Lemon Juice, the Pistachio Frappe, The Roasted Barley Milk Tea, the Avocado Slush, and the Chia Hibiscus Tea. For cakes, the Red Velvet is a top contender.
The star sandwich is the Sweet Hut Bulgogi Burger. Think Korean meets Vietnamese, and settle in America. The meat patty is seasoned like the traditional Korean bulgogi dish, dressed in pickled carrots and cucumber that are often used in the Vietnamese banh mi, accompanied by spinach, coleslaw, and mayo, all within two whole wheat buns. This is not a burger to be eaten on a date, or when you’re wearing your new pressed clean white shirt, or when you're trying to impress that girl across the room. The Sweet Hut Bulgogi Burger screams boys night out, football, and ‘Murica. It is monstrous, it is wild, it is messy, and it will require a good cleaning up after. Other notable mentions are the Lemongrass BBQ Pork, and the Portabella Mushroom Panini, a delectable nod to the vegetarian diners. The Miso Sesame Steak is a somewhat replica of the Philly Cheesesteak, though unfortunately lack sesame and miso flavors.
Act 3, the dining room. Free WiFi and personal outlets are available to stay-in guests. A big white couch lays comfortably and inviting. The private booths are rarely vacant. Gatherings from business meetings, to student study groups, to stay-at-home moms with baby strollers chatting over coffee are common. The ambiance is soft and quiet, as it should be.
The opening of Sweet Hut Duluth is perhaps only the beginning of Sweet Hut's even greater success story. A forth Sweet Hut, set in Kennesaw, GA, is currently under construction and due to be opened soon. Enough is never enough.
Photos by Helen Nguyen & Vu Nguyen.