Community discusses significance of bubble tea as number of bubble tea stores in Ann Arbor doubles

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 - 5:25pm

Chatime’s new Ann Arbor location

Chatime’s new Ann Arbor location Buy this photo
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On Wednesday morning during finals week, LSA junior Theresa Pham traveled to North Campus around 9 a.m. Pham was going to the third day of CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice’s soft opening — almost two hours before the store opened its doors.

“I think why most people tried it or waited so long in line was to see if it was really worth the hype,” Pham said. “For the most part, I think most people can agree it was.”

CoCo and Chatime, two Taiwan-based chains specializing in a popular drink known as “bubble tea” or “boba,” opened in Ann Arbor in late April. Chatime, open downtown on Maynard Street, and CoCo, located on North Campus on Plymouth Road, join Sweeting and Bubble Island on South University Avenue, bringing the number of bubble tea shops in Ann Arbor up to four.

Since opening, both CoCo and Chatime have attracted lines with over a two-hour wait throughout their respective opening weeks. According to Business senior Connie You, these lines don’t represent everyone who is interested in the drinks.

“I feel like the lines would’ve been even longer if more people actually came in person,” You said. “I know a lot of my friends bought like 20 at a time for other people.”

This demand for bubble tea in Ann Arbor may reflect the drink’s growing popularity around the country. Invented in Taiwan in the 1980’s, the original bubble tea drink combines tea and milk with chewy tapioca pearls, from which “bubble” tea gets its name. As the drink has evolved, becoming available in an assortment of fruity flavors and with a variety of topping options — like grass jelly, red beans and egg pudding to name a few — boba has spread beyond Asia.

Brought to the United States by Taiwanese immigrants, bubble tea first got its footing on the West Coast, where it has become “an integral part of Asian-American culture in Los Angeles” and other coastal cities. In recent years, the bubble tea market has grown significantly: Chatime sells over 100 million cups of boba a year, and CoCo has more than 3,500 stores worldwide. From 2017 to 2023, the global bubble tea market is forecasted to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.4 percent.

“Each location will surely find some pre-existing bubble tea fans, and plenty of people eager to try something new,” Uri Bram wrote in a Quartz article.

According to Angel Chan, the owner of Chatime Ann Arbor, the store has thousands of customers a week, including repeat customers. Reflecting on the drink’s popularity, Chan explained why she decided to open the store.

“Ann Arbor should be a place for authentic bubble tea,” Chan said. “U-M has a lot of Asian-American students, students from Asia … and they know what bubble tea is. … If there’s a new spot open, of course everybody wants to check it out and see what the difference is.”

Chan emphasized Chatime’s name, explaining she hopes the store can facilitate time spent meaningfully with friends.

“‘Cha’ is ‘tea’ in Chinese, and we live in a really busy world,” Chan said. “People often don’t have time to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. So, with the name Chatime, we just wish to see people sit down with friends, drink some tea and really connect.”

To Pham, bubble tea is special because of the social role it can play. Pham explained she went to CoCo the morning of soft opening week with other members of Vietnamese Student Association as a bonding event.

“We talked and chilled and did homework and hung out afterwards,” Pham said. “For me, what was worth it was being able to spend time with my VSA board.”

You, incoming co-president of Asian/Pacific Islander American Students in Business, said her organization often uses bubble tea for social and networking events.

“A lot of times if we want to meet up, people go on bubble tea runs,” You said. “In ASIB, we also host bubble tea chats.”

To explain boba’s social significance, Chan compared bubble tea shops to coffee shops.

“It’s just coffee shops in America, but in Asian countries you sit down in a tea place to chit-chat and connect with a friend,” Chan said. “That’s why we put a lot of money into renovating this place … we were willing to invest because we want people to sit down in our store and enjoy or do work.”

Lin hypothesizes boba’s social popularity is due to the younger crowd it attracts.

“I think it’s a natural thing that bubble tea shops have become popular social spots,” Lin said. “I think it’s mainly because we have young people in our customer base — college students, high schoolers, young adults — and I think they like to try our bubble tea and come to our place to hang out.”

You, originally from Michigan, recently visited California, where she says there are “many more” bubble tea options.

“But now that Michigan has adopted chain stores like CoCo and Chatime, it’s starting to match up to the quality of what is in California,” You said.

Pham expressed the two new bubble tea stores will make it easier for students to hang out.

“It’s been an issue that there’s been no good boba places for many people’s standards,” Pham said. “I think CoCo and Chatime coming, I don’t have to just go to South University for bubble tea … And it’s just nice to have options … That means it’s more things to hang out with people, you know?”

Albert Lin, the managing director of CoCo Ann Arbor, discussed CoCo’s significance as the only bubble tea shop on North Campus, which he said will be beneficial for students who live and study there. In particular, Lin said North Campus has a “vibrant community” of Asian international students.

“For a lot of people who are from Asia, they are familiar with the product and familiar with our brand,” Lin said. “It represents part of their culture and heritage.”

Similarly, Chan, who was raised in Hong Kong, said she grew up with bubble tea. When she has the drink, she said it reminds her of “childhood and home.”

However, bubble tea is not only culturally significant among international students, said LSA senior Steffi Cao, who wrote an article in Tostada Magazine about boba and Asian American identity. In fact, drinking boba with other Asian-American friends, Cao writes, “was something in the middle, like us.”

In an interview with The Daily, Cao explained how bubble tea culture, like the culture of many Asian-American immigrants, has changed after moving from Asia to America. According to Cao, many people in Asia order bubble tea as a side item, while people in America tend to order it on its own. Cao believes boba can be a way for Asian Americans to relate to one another.

“I think it has a lot of commonality between different ethnicities — there’s Vietnamese bubble tea, Taiwanese bubble tea — and it is so accessible for different Asian-American ethnicities,” Cao said. “Food is also so easily shared, and such a big part of so many Asian/Pacific Islander American cultures, we can share that as part of the diaspora.”

Bubble Island employee and Engineering sophomore William Gao said he’s noticed social media plays a role in the popularization of bubble tea.

“A lot of people post on social media about it,” Gao said. “You'll see people taking photos for Snapchat and Instagram a lot, and a lot of people just, like, come to hang out in the bubble store. When I’m working at Bubble Island, oftentimes people just come with their friends and, like, sit down for like an hour or more just talking or playing games.”

Gao’s comments reflect boba’s popularity in global digital spaces with many Asian Americans. In particular, bubble tea posts dominate “Subtle Asian Traits,” a Facebook group with more than 1.3 million members. In the group, young Asian individuals share memes and bond over common experiences, often over being a first-generation immigrant.

Overall, Pham expressed excitement for the two new bubble tea places in Ann Arbor, reflecting sentiments driving the surge of popularity of bubble tea across the world.

“I’m just happy, because it’s more boba,” Pham said.

Michal Ruprecht contributed to the reporting of this article.