After graduating from Fort Hays State University last year, Yihong “Caroline” Chen realized America was her home.
Born in Fujian, China, she carries much of her culture close to her heart. So when she decided to establish herself in Hays by opening her own business, she wanted a piece of that culture to remain with her.
Almost a week ago, Chen opened the doors of Sweet Zoo, 115 W. Eighth — a bakery and coffee shop with a comfortable, home-like atmosphere.
“It’s always great to welcome a new business to The Bricks, and it’s even more exciting when it’s something as unique and different as a Chinese bakery,” said Sara Bloom, Downtown Hays Development Corp. executive director.
The official grand opening of Sweet Zoo is today, and free dessert samples will be provided from 11:30 a.m. to noon, and 1:30 to 2 p.m.
“I was searching for a place for about a half a year,” Chen said of her new business space. “This place is near the college, so I wanted it.”
After some remodeling, including painting, enlarging rooms and equipping the kitchen, Chen was ready to begin her unique adventure.
Her goal, she said, is to provide treats and drinks that represent Chinese and American cultures.
“I use Chinese ways to cook American food,” Chen said. “At the beginning, we just wanted to sell Chinese desserts, but many American people don’t know about them. So I learned more about how to make American desserts in a Chinese way.”
Just a few of the dessert items on her menu are cheese cake, cinnamon roll cupcakes, chocolate chiffon cake, Oreo balls and mooncake.
She also offers meals such as pasta, curry chicken and Chinese burgers.
The shop is decorated in an animal theme, which represents the “zoo” part of the bakery’s name.
Artwork, tables, a couch, board games and magazines give the space a comfortable, home-like feeling.
“I just want people to come together and enjoy these foods while relaxing and having fun together,” Chen said.
The business owner said she was thankful for the help of her roommate and best friend, who serves as a partner in the business.
Others have stepped in to help Chen get started as well, including J. Basil Dannebohm, who said he was going to lend a hand during the grand opening.
“You have to admire somebody who comes to Hays to school and stays here because she loves the people,” he said. “It’s incredibly bold to come to a country and become an entrepreneur out of college in a town like Hays.”
Chen said she is excited to share her unique products with the Hays community and looks forward to what lies ahead.
Sweet Zoo is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, visit the business’ Facebook page.