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Good Clean fun in Hong Kong with Cynthia Lok

July 23, 2023

Clean, Hong Kong’s sleek coffee shop and laundry concept, flips the script on coffee shop norms by upcharging customers for dairy milk.

An unorthodox pairing

Hybrid coffee shop models are on the rise, with florists, bookshops, board game parlors, and record stores all trying their hand at brewing joe and making latte art. Gone are the Cracker Barrel days where you browsed merchandise in the store, migrated to the restaurant, and then shuttled back out to make purchases. Now you can grab a bevvy and sip while you shop for succulents, memoirs, or LPs. One combo, though, is so unique that it hasn’t been duplicated anywhere else in the world: coffee and… laundry?

Hongkonger Cynthia Lok co-founded Clean with her brother Bryan, their Sai Ying Pun location opening in September 2021. Before it was a passion project, it was a puzzle: How to combat corporate greenwashing while taking a decidedly “non-militant” approach to sustainability? Solutions need to be inclusive, accessible, and non-threatening if businesses want to get people in the door, let alone sway customers to adopt a greener lifestyle. The answer lay in another question: What do people already do, day in and day out, without fail? Coffee and laundry.

Clean’s sleek hybrid concept

No matter who they are, what temperature it is outside, or what day of the week it is, people drink coffee and wash their clothes. The genius of Clean taps into that universal demand by offering two of life’s necessities under the same roof—but it gets even better. Laundromats are also a great community-building tool because people who live nearby gather there. Friends and neighbors gather at the laundromat, they chew the fat, catch up, hang out. Sounds a bit like a coffee shop, doesn’t it? Both of Clean’s components are community gathering spaces, which made Clean the perfect space to trial a cultural revolution.

“The coffee shop model is overdue for innovation.”

Step inside Clean, and you may feel like you’ve stepped into the future. Pastel pink and austerely Space Age, the process of buying a coffee is more or less automated, thanks to their unique one-touch taps. Offering a small menu of “consistently excellent drinks,” Clean’s biggest subversion is immediately made clear on its no-frills menu: coffees are made with oatmilk by default. Cow’s milk is available… if you’re willing to pay HK$ 2 more.

That’s right, Clean has fully flipped coffee shop norms, adding a surcharge to any orders that substitute animal milk, instead of charging more for plantmilk like you normally see.

Plant-based milks haven’t seen the same meteoric rise in popularity in Hong Kong that they have elsewhere, simply because geoeconomic factors keep the price high; oatmilk costs 3-4 times more than cow’s milk in Hong Kong, and with a price sticker that steep, even the lactose intolerant will choose to buy dairy milk, paying the price with their digestive systems rather than their wallets. An avid oatmilk fan, Cynthia knew she wanted to serve oatmilk-based drinks, but with the cost of oatmilk so high, she needed to charge more for dairy for financial reasons. That’s fine by her; Clean’s plant-forward pricing nudges customers toward the sustainable choice.

Many people “read online that they should revamp their lifestyle, and they often don’t know where to start,” Lok explains. “A little pricing change can have a huge impact, and changing the default can [too].”

Her commitment to planet-friendly operations doesn’t stop there: to-go cups also cost extra to encourage customers to bring their own cups. Even if customers don’t care about the environment, they’ll want to save money. And in choosing to be cheap (i.e., going along with the oatmilk default), many customers have made a wonderful discovery: They feel better.

Clean’s menu makes oatmilk the default at no upcharge

Budding self-awareness

According to Lok, Hongkongers of Asian descent are finally beginning to realize—and accept—that they’re lactose intolerant. With this revelation comes a new appreciation for dairy-free lattes. “They feel better after drinking [oatmilk]!” Clean is many locals’ first introduction to oatmilk, and it’s safe to say that they like what they’ve found. A reported 99% of current customers receive oatmilk in their drinks! (She and Bryan still hear the occasional pedestrian complain about plant-based milk as they walk past, but with heated cookie vending machines, who needs ‘em?)

Interestingly, expats tend to be more veg-friendly than native Hongkongers, despite white foreign nationals being perfectly able to digest lactose. In converting locals to Team Oatmilk, Clean is helping bring Hong Kong up to speed on the global oatmilk phenomenon. With a growing oatmilk fanbase to support them, the Loks opened a second location in January 2023. At the Tsim Sha Tsui store, oatmilk lattes are again on tap, but this time there’s no dairy available on the premises. Now that’s progress.

With one oatmilk-default and one oatmilk-only coffeeshop to their name, Cynthia and Bryan are flipping cultural food norms on their heads and flipping people’s expectations of what lattes can be. Every latte defies stereotypes, every affogato expands the imagination, and every cookie tastes delicious. A clean sweep.