The growth of boba culture in the San Gabriel Valley

  • Labobatory's #KittoKatto, a white chocolate matcha milk latte. All photos by Aurora Zeng.

  • Bon Appetea's storefront, located on 2nd Street right next to Alhambra High School.

  • Tea Brick's reusable plastic bottles features corgis this summer. The drink is The Vanessa, a strawberry peach green tea with strawberries and lychee.

  • The first Tapioca Express opened on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra during 1999. The storefront remains in the same place.

  • Lollicup's storefront on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. The chain started in San Gabriel in 2000.

  • Factory Tea Bar's storefront in the San Gabriel Mission District. The store's spacious insides are a popular hangout place for San Gabriel high schoolers.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Anyone driving down a busy street in the San Gabriel Valley is bound to pass by a boba shop sooner or later. With over five stores on Main Street alone, boba has become an important symbol of the culture in the 626 area.

Boba milk tea has its origins in Taiwan during the 1980s, according to “Food & Wine Magazine.” Dry tapioca balls, made from the starch of cassava roots, are boiled and then cooled to create chewy boba. Already a popular dessert by itself, a food stall in Taipei, Taiwan combined them with shaved ice and milk tea to create the drink now known as boba. Soon boba spread throughout the country as a prominent item in Taiwanese night markets and was introduced by immigrants to the United States in the 1990s.

One of the first boba locations in southern California was Tapioca Express, which opened in 1999 on Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. Shortly afterwards in 2000, Lollicup opened its first location in San Gabriel. While it closed a few years ago, another Lollicup storefront in Alhambra, right next to Tapioca Express, remains open.

In recent years, boba has taken the San Gabriel Valley by storm. Sales and the popularity of certain shops over others can be affected by factors such as a store’s price, flavor, boba texture and overall atmosphere. To keep up with competition, stores have implemented different ways to attract customers. For example, Tea Brick in Monterey Park began to use reusable plastic bottles in 2016. These bottles, featuring cute designs that change every season, continue to gain attention from customers even outside Monterey Park. Their current summer design has corgis on it. Previous designs include polar bears, hedgehogs and foxes.

Other stores like Bon Appetea Cafe and Factory Tea Bar enjoy convenient locations next to high schools. Bon Appetea, one of the older boba stores on Main Street and located right next to Alhambra High School, offers daily Happy Hour deals from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on certain drinks. While their flavors are typical compared to other stores, these cheaper prices have increased their sales during Happy Hour even with the pressure of competition from other stores on Main, such as T4 Tea For U. Since its opening, Bon Appetea’s sales have remained relatively constant.

“When [other shops] first opened, we would lose customers for the first month or so, but they all come back,” Bon Appetea manager Mason Hong said.

Factory Tea Bar, on the other hand, is located near San Gabriel High School. Like Bon Appetea, Factory Tea Bar also offers a Happy Hour deal on Tuesday afternoons, when their special Nom Nom drink, a creamier milk tea, is only a dollar. The store offers students and working adults a spacious environment to study, do homework or hang out with friends. However, because of growing competition, manager Charlie Tran said it has been a bit more difficult to reach the store’s target profits without increasing the price of their boba, which is cooked in multiple batches throughout the day to keep its freshness.

“We try to keep the prices reasonable for customers,” Tran said.

Both Bon Appetea and Factory Tea Bar sell an average of 200-300 cups of boba every day.

Meanwhile, boba stores like Labobatory differentiate themselves from other places with unique flavors and innovative ways to advertise. Located on Las Tunas Drive in San Gabriel, the store offers unconventional flavors such as #FuegoMango, which has chili flakes, lime and lemon in a mango green tea, and Purple Dream, a taro flavored drink with ube ice cream. Labobatory also utilizes social media to host weekly giveaways of their flasks, which publicizes the store to a wider audience.

“There’s a lot of competition… but the demand [for boba] is there,” Labobatory manager Oscar Ho said. “This area is where boba and tea can thrive. Constantly there’s a lot of people moving in here and a lot of people like boba.”

With so many boba stores to choose from, many local customers like California State University, Los Angeles student Huong Phu, are open to trying different locations. Phu grew up in Alhambra and has been to most of the boba shops in the San Gabriel Valley.

“I’m excited to taste what each store has to offer,” she said. “I’m usually willing to make the drive to other places just to try new boba shops… Boba has to have the perfect consistency of not too soft where it tastes cheap and not too hard where it requires too much chewing. [Even though] the store may look nice, if the drinks aren’t that great then I most likely wouldn’t [go] back.”

Choosing a store to go to is a dilemma boba enthusiasts have to face. Customers can pick a nearby store for convenience, or drive further out if they crave a certain store’s flavor. Students who want a place to study will seek out stores with tables that let them sit down and work.

“I believe a good boba shop not only includes good quality drinks at a reasonable price but also an area for people to lounge around and study,” Mark Keppel High School student Cristin Lue said. “[S]ome boba shops like AU79, Honeyboba and Tea Brick have tables for people to study or hang out with one another.”

Lue, who has tried quite a few different boba shops, associates each one with a different type of drink. For example, she goes to Tastea or Tea Brick for a fruity drink, Honeyboba (in Monterey Park) for a slushy drink and Half & Half for a milky drink.

Even at night, stores like Half & Half are lively scenes, full of people enjoying their time off. Families and friends come out to enjoy a drink and catch up with each other.

“I feel like boba plays a huge part in Asian culture. Most boba shops [are] a good place for people of all ages to come together and spend time together,” Phu said.

The popularity of boba drinks has undoubtedly grown in the past few years. With an increasing number of successful stores opening everywhere, it seems that at least for now, boba will not be disappearing any time soon.

Aurora Zeng is an Alhambra Source summer intern.

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