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The story of Boba Guys (23 Clinton Street, no phone), an organic/local/ethically sourced bubble tea company, plays out like it was designed for a Vimeo documentary. Picture the scene: San Francisco, 2011. Bin Chen and Andrew Chau’s eyes meet across the foosball table in a startup workspace at a “kickass messenger bag and accessories company,” according to Chen. “We bonded over a mutual love of bubble tea. We would be there at lunch, drinking bubble tea, talking about one day starting a business together, and there it was.”
Cue the Training Montage sequence: Chen and Chau learn their craft from YouTube videos, create a pop-up bubble tea store in a friend’s restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco, build a passionate community through social media, turn the pop-up into first one then two stores, then look around for another city with the ideal conditions to nurture a brand extension. Enter NYC — specifically the East Village.
“We like to think that we serve the highest-quality milk tea in the world,” says Chen. “We use loose-leaf teas, no powders, which is unusual in this industry. We use local organic milk, and we make our own syrups in-house. We get our tapioca dried. Every few hours we make a fresh batch, boiling it, soaking it. Our goal is one day to make our own version so it’s organic.”
It’s this attention to detail that gives Boba Guys a level of craft and sophistication that’s unexpected in the world of bubble tea. “We just got back from a trip to China and Taiwan sourcing tea,” Chen reports. “We’re really tea obsessives. So when we bring that to Boba, that’s something different.
“People think it’s basically a kid’s drink, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Both Andrew and I grew up with the drink. But as you get older, you get a bit more conscientious about what you’re putting in your body. We wanted to be able to enjoy boba without it being an insanely sugary calorie-bomb.” For fans of the stuff, that’s good news indeed.
Just a few weeks in to their New York opening, Chen is beginning to relax. “Things seem to be going well,” he muses. “We’re making lots of tea, people seem to really like it, and word of mouth is growing. We were worried about opening on the East Coast. Was it too early to expand? Too risky? But we thought, if we want to be the leaders in boba, and we want to make an impact in tea, New York is the place to be.”