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Meet the Strong Water Founders: Orange County's Sole 2024 James Beard Semifinalist

Our culinary columnist interviews Strong Water’s owners, Ying Chang and Robert Adamson.


Strong Water owners, Robert Adamson, left, and Ying Chang. Photo courtesy of Strong Water
 

It was November 2019 when I initially visited Anaheim’s Strong Water, Ying Chang and Robert Adamson’s long-awaited project in the form of a shipwrecked tiki bar. Four years and one very special nomination later, I seized the opportunity to ask the perpetually busy duo about their respective journeys that got them to this major recognition of semifinalist for Outstanding Beverage Program for the 2024 James Beard Awards.


I’ve always admired the work ethic of both Chang and Adamson. Strong Water Anaheim has been a favorite bar of mine since opening because it encompasses the kind of drinking/dining experience that memorable, award-worthy bars and restaurants possess.


ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN: Describe Strong Water’s beverage program. Why do you think it has achieved national recognition?


YING CHANG: Cocktail integrity has always been paramount in our menu curations. We're thrilled to present our vibrant cocktail program, featuring an impressive selection of over 40-plus carefully crafted tropical drinks. From timeless tiki classics to our own inventive twists, there's something for every palate to enjoy. One of the many highlights of our menu is the "Rum Manifest," a thoughtfully curated assortment of rum delights, showcasing a rich tapestry of flavors from around the globe. We understand that rum is not for everyone so our cocktail menu has a little something for everyone, with offerings extending beyond rum to include whiskey, gin, tequila and more, ensuring a diverse and inclusive experience for all.

At the core of our beverage philosophy lies a deep commitment to inclusivity and responsible hospitality. We understand that enjoyment and socialization transcend mere alcohol consumption, which is why we've put just as much care into crafting our selection of non-alcoholic beverages. Our aim is to create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome and can fully partake in the festivities.


Furthermore, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and accountability. Each cocktail is meticulously crafted to meet our exacting standards before it ever reaches your glass. We believe there are countless ways to savor a cocktail – from its appearance and aroma to its taste – and our program excels in every aspect. This meticulous attention to detail reflects our profound gratitude for the trust and support of our patrons, inspiring us to surpass expectations with every sip.


Drinks at Strong Water are served in custom glassware. Photo courtesy of Strong Water

A.M.P.: How did you decide on a hospitality career path?


Y. C.: For me, hospitality became a natural choice out of necessity. I initially started working in restaurants while attending college because I quickly realized the challenge of fitting a traditional nine-to-five job with my constantly changing quarterly schedule at UCI. As I progressed into my sophomore year, I decided to take the leap and apply for a position in the industry. Knowing that many establishments required prior experience, I opted for a host position. 


Corporate restaurants have a way of drawing you in, and despite my initial reservations, I found myself drawn to this profession. Culturally, it wasn't the path my parents or I envisioned for myself after college, but over time, I began to embrace it. It wasn't until my tenth year in hospitality, coinciding with the birth of our first child and the opportunity to become restaurant owners, that I fully embraced the potential of this career path. 


From launching a speakeasy to ventures like Strong Water and Double Luck, I've found my stride in hospitality, and I genuinely love it. While there are inevitably tough days, I'm grateful that this industry has worked out so well for me. Helping people has always been my passion, and I'm thrilled to do so within the realm of hospitality.


ROBERT ADAMSON: Choosing a hospitality career path happened somewhat unexpectedly. Originally, I was on the track to become a graphic designer while pursuing a master's in psychology for children's art therapy. However, the challenges of the therapy practice world led me to drop out of my master's program.


Throughout my college years, I was concurrently working in the hospitality industry, initially not giving it much thought. Over time, though, I found myself improving my skills and honing my craft in this field. As I accumulated real-world experience, I realized I had outgrown the office

culture.


The turning point came when I had to decide between owning a bar or continuing to work

behind a desk. The allure of the hospitality industry and the accumulated moments trying to fit into the office culture led me to embrace the opportunity to own a bar, and the rest, as they say, is history.


A.M.P.: What was your first job in the industry?


Y.C.: Initially, I applied for a host position at a corporate restaurant, but much to my surprise, they offered me a server position instead. It seemed they saw something in me, particularly given the new store opening, and believed I could rise to the occasion. I vividly remember expressing my genuine shock to the manager, remarking that they might have made a mistake in hiring me for the role. However, his response was reassuring and humbling: “We feel you'd be better suited for a server position.” I can honestly say I've never left an interview feeling so grateful, especially at such a young age. Within just a year, I found myself promoted to bartender, and later entrusted with roles as a server trainer and bar trainer. 


R.A.: My first industry job was in the U.S. Navy, where I initially worked in the mess hall, the ship's kitchen. I “volunteered” for food preparation, and when an opportunity opened up in the officer's mess, I moved up. In that role, I dressed nicer and took orders. It was a fun experience, and it allowed me to interact with officers who managed different departments. This not only made my time in the service more enjoyable, but also helped bridge the gap between enlisted and commissioned officers. Building these connections made the officers seem a lot less intimidating to an 18-year-old like me. This experience helped me view the world as less intimidating and more approachable, especially when my role involved bringing people food. 


A.M.P: How are work/home responsibilities divided up?


Y.C.: It was a gradual process for Robert and me to establish our respective roles. Eventually, we found our rhythm, and I primarily oversee the day-to-day operations and provide leadership within the team. I've assembled a fantastic leadership team at Strong Water who truly understand and embrace our vision and objectives. In the restaurant industry, staying at the top of your game is a constant requirement, which is why I work closely with the team every day, adhering to our mantra of “striving for excellence, every day.” My responsibilities extend to managing marketing efforts, coordinating events and more. 


Robert focuses on design aspects and curating our mug selection. Like any business owner, there's a natural inclination to handle all aspects, including the more labor-intensive tasks such as troubleshooting and repairs, be it plumbing or electrical issues. 


On the home front, given my more frequent presence at the restaurant, Robert and I share the responsibility of caring for our children, with him taking charge of daily household chores. Our children mean the world to us, and we cherish the moments spent together, eagerly anticipating and cherishing their formative years. Time flies, and before we know it, they'll be all grown up.


R.A.: In our household, Ying excels in the professional leadership aspect, focusing on the cultural and leadership aspects of our work. My role is more supportive – I develop training programs and currently lead the transition to online training, eliminating bulky manuals and paper waste. 


Balancing work and family, we have two kids and maintain a great work-life equilibrium. When Ying works late, I handle bedtime routines and house chores. We stay up late discussing our days and planning the future, typically going to bed around 3 a.m. and waking up at 6:45 a.m. to prepare the kids for school. After a power nap, we start a new afternoon, balancing work and home life. 


Our kids are like an amazing break from the restaurant world, preventing it from overwhelming us completely. The intertwined nature of our work and family life forms the fabric of our days.


The backroom at Strong Water. Photo courtesy of Strong Water

A.M.P.: What can you tell us about the next bar?


Y.C./R.A.: The upcoming bar, Double Luck, is conveniently situated just a block away from Strong Water Anaheim. A few years back, our aim was to enhance the walkability of this area by adding a neighborhood bar into the mix. In Orange County, there's often a reliance on driving to get around, so we wanted to cultivate an atmosphere reminiscent of cities like San Diego, New York and San Francisco, where strolling from one bar to another is part of the experience. With Double Luck, our aspiration is to establish a welcoming “third place” where people can gather, relax and enjoy themselves. 


A.M.P: If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?


Y.C.: Embrace change, even when it feels daunting. Don't settle into comfort; growth often lies beyond familiarity. Speak up; your voice holds more power than you realize, and its impact can be profound. Take heed of your parents' guidance; they have your best interests at heart and offer invaluable wisdom born from their experiences. 


R.A.: If I could give advice to my 20-year-old self, I'd say two things. First, consider investing in Amazon – it's a game-changer. Second, in terms of the industry, take more risks. Act on the advice people give you, especially about their regrets or missed opportunities. Maybe move to New York earlier and work in some of the great bars that were just starting. Read more and drink a bit less. While I can't say everything didn't work out, these changes might have brought me here a bit sooner and with even more experiences under my belt. 


James Beard Awards

The James Beard Awards are the foodservice industry equivalent of the Oscars. For the Chef and Restaurant Awards, it was the Outstanding Wine and Beverage Program category that Chang felt best represented Strong Water’s tiki-centric menu. Receiving the semifinalist designation in 2024 (and being the only OC business to get recognition) is an incredible honor for the bar.


Y.C.: At day's end, we are truly privileged to have been named a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Awards in recognition of our Outstanding Wine and Beverage Program. It fills us with immense gratitude to stand as the sole representative from Orange County, and we eagerly anticipate the opportunity to advance to the finals in April. Nevertheless, we are deeply grateful for this acknowledgment.

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