I told my cousin no more. I'm not going to have any more cupcakes thrown at me. I'm sorry. I work way too hard at the bank to come here roll up my sleeves and get thrown cupcakes on my suit.
Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 36 from Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.
If you have ever been to St. Mark's in New York City, you might have walked by not one, but two Spot Dessert Bars. It's famous for its matcha lava cakes, which are just about as delicious as they sound. In this episode of Rock the Boat, we talk to Asian American and co-founder of Spot Dessert Bar Ace Watanasuparp.
In addition to having a history in banking, Ace did a stint as a collegiate basketball player as a walk-on at UConn. He tried out a few times and worked hard to finally make the roster in his junior year.
We hear about in this episode:
growing up in Queens, NY with immigrant parents
going to UConn and trying out for the basketball team
working at a bank in New York
starting restaurants in New York
I. Ace's Basketball Glory
Lucia: He grew up in Queens, New York, to immigrant parents who each worked three jobs. He always attributes his grit to his parents. He attended high school at Bronx Science and went to undergraduate at the University of Connecticut. ACE was athletic growing up, so he played a lot of sports, but he was especially interested in basketball.
Ace: You know, I used to play in the rain in the snow. I would wear gloves. Everywhere I went I would be dribbling a basketball.
If you know, we had a family trip, I would forget all of my bags, but the one thing that I would bring is a rubber basketball. I would literally sneak out of the house to go play basketball. So that was my life growing up.
Lucia: Ace didn't give up his basketball dreams even while he was in college.
Ace: I went to UConn and I wanted to play basketball there and I had a academic scholarship there as well.
Lucia: Was it for basketball?
Ace: It's for business. Nothing to do with basketball.
At the time. UConn was a Powerhouse my freshman year. They actually won the National Championship. So if I ever told anyone that my plan was to walk on or try out for the UConn team, they probably laugh in my face, right but, you know, I had an opportunity.
I was playing at the field house. A couple of guys that I played basketball with say, "You should definitely go and try out, you know, we think you have a pretty good shot."
Lucia: Ace poured his heart and soul into basketball and he tried out his sophomore year. He made it to the final cut, but the coaches felt like he needed to bulk up, so he was again, cut from the team. Still, Ace felt like it was too soon to give up.
Ace: It was one of those defining moments where I'm this close.
Am I going to give up or am I going to try again? And you know the answer to that was, "Let's try again."
For some reason I just channeled all my energy towards not regretting. I really regretted not being there for my parents and I didn't want to know that I tried that hard to make it to the last cut and then I just gave up.
Lucia: Ace trained hard for another year, and in his junior year, he finally made the team.
Ace: I tried out. I made it onto the team. And it was like euphoric. I ran out of the gym. All of my friends are outside, they're cheering.
Lucia: Ace made history as the first Asian American walk on for UConn ever.
II. After UConn
Lucia: While playing for UConn, Ace kept his grades up. So remember he had an academic scholarship to study finance. So after he graduated, he was unable to play basketball anymore. So he got a job in Connecticut and financial services. He didn't like his first job. So he moved over to CitiGroup in the mortgage division.
Ace: People tend to ask me, "How did you land that job? And how did you establish yourself at that job?" And I think, you know, your earlier years in your career, you need to take chances. I also needed to make the decision to move, to really stay within my industry, not give up.
Lucia: So at this point, ACE had spent seven years in the mortgage industry. He was being groomed by one of the more senior bank managers when suddenly he received a call from senior management.
Ace: Volume is slowing down and we're going to let go of someone, so the manager that's been mentoring me and you're going to be taking his place and although I should have been grateful and happy was very concerned.
It's like, but it's Thanksgiving next week. He just told me that he's going to do all this for his family. he's telling me how he's buying a turkey for the family and he's having everyone come over to his place for a huge family gathering. Like why would you guys have to do it the day before Thanksgiving? Well, that's when we're going to do the riffs and. We're not asking you we're telling you. that was when I realized that he gave 25 30 years of his whole life towards this financial institution.
And I totally understand, you know, as we go through budgets pll's things of that nature there needs to be cuts that that needs to be made, but the way they did it. And the way that he was let go I just didn't agree with.
And my cousin ironically at the time was having a falling out with his partners. He already had three restaurants himself.
Lucia: His cousin worked in hospitality, and he had asked ACE multiple times to start a restaurant together. Each time ACE would pass on the opportunity due to his career and finance. However, the Thanksgiving incident really shook ACE and he realized he needed to own his own destiny. So this time when his cousin asked about starting something, ACE said, yes.
Ace: So we decided to open a karaoke but that never happened and it became Spot Dessert Bar because he already had a restaurant on St. Mark's Place.
So this was like right after the recession. So what happened was because the recession that's why we took the space. Rent was at an all-time high before the recession, but because of the recession landlords were giving spaces away, because businesses were failing.
Lucia: Because rent was so cheap. ACE and his cousin decided to open Spot Dessert Bar and Obao, which is another restaurant concept they came up with that sold Vietnamese and Thai noodles on the same day. Obviously neither of them were a huge success out of the gate.
Ace: We struggled the first six months. It really goes to show you that if you don't have a solid strategic business plan going in, you know, you're bound for failure, right?
I'd be working at the bank and would go there and visit the restaurants at 9 p.m. Literally just shoot right over and we weren't selling any of our cupcakes. We had maybe 30 cupcakes and I don't know if you ever been to St. Mark's Place it is a lot of drunk kids. There are a lot of universities.
A group of drunk kids come by and I still remember it's me and Rex Rex was the manager at the time and we were like, oh, you know, these cupcakes are 50% off, you know by them. Now we make fresh baked goods every single day.
We want to get rid of them. So these drunk kids, they said, "Okay, we'll buy all of them." We're so excited right? It's really, okay great, but under one circumstance, we get to throw these cupcakes at you.
So we gave them the cupcakes and they were throwing the cupcakes at us. We didn't think that they were really literally going to do it right because really low maybe they're just joking around maybe they're just drunk but that was like probably the lowest point in terms of owning, any company for that matter, And that was a good experience in terms of just the grit.
III. Bringing it back to the community
Lucia: As the story has come full circle today, Ace's mission is to use the platform he's built from Spot and Obao to give back to the community. He's developing talent at spot, giving its workers the chance to become leaders and active members of the community.
Ace: We want to be able to create a company that we're developing not only leaders within spot but then we also really encourage for them to be participating in their communities.
I think being Asian American sometimes, you know the answer, but you're just too shy. Or you don't want to participate because you feel like you want to be respectful of your peers right growing up in an Asian household, you know, my parents really taught in and it's been great.
You need to respect your elders and not talk back. But sometimes in a leadership role you need to speak up.
You don't need to be rude, but you need to speak up. You need to voice your opinion.
Ace showed us that Asian Americans can excel in sports. Even when the odds are against you, you can find ways to show your strengths. With Spot, Ace followed his instincts, merging Asian and American tastes for a grand slam.
We're a big fan of Spot Dessert Bar, so if you are ever in New York City make sure to hit them up. You may have to wait in line for a bit though.
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