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The big news at Boba is that there isn’t much of it right now. According to Victoria Lam, co-owner of Tea Street at 4090 East Mississippi Avenue, and ASA Foods, a grocery distribution service, along with her brother Patrick, there’s less of a boba shortage than a boba delay. She says this as national headlines warn that the rest of the country is going through a Boba crisis. It got worse when customers walked in with the intent to buy the chewy tapioca balls in bulk before supplies ran out.
“Let’s not do all that toilet paper all over again,” says Victoria. “Order what you need. There will be more. “
But there could be a delay or a dry spell, and that is worrying for Denver Boba Tea Shops.
Boba originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. They traditionally embellish Taiwanese milk teas, but as they grow in popularity around the world, they have found a place in a wide variety of teas and smoothies. In many cases, however, the boba has yet to be ordered from Taiwan, and with the pandemic causing delays in international shipping, much of the boba destined for US markets is on cargo ships off the coast of California.
“It’s another industry that has been disrupted by the pandemic,” said Mark Geman, owner and CEO of Bambu Franchising and owner of the Bambu Denver facility.
Geman explains that there is a process for international goods to enter the country. As soon as ships dock in port, their crews must fill out the documents and have them checked by authorities such as U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration. Small disruptions like fewer staff due to social distancing guidelines can have a detrimental effect. “Suddenly everything starts moving a little slower than before,” he notes. “And there are only X slots for the ships that come in.”
The residue has stranded ships off the coast of port cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“You just can’t get it [products] fast enough, ”adds Patrick Lam. Due to the backlog in North America, the product is in ports across the ocean waiting to be shipped. “Everyone at the other end is waiting for the empty container.”
Bambu, a new drive-thru shop for Boba and Che, is one of many Boba tea stores trying to measure how much shipping delays can affect their business.
Boba hasn’t run out of lams yet. But they know there may be bottlenecks.
Their Boba orders from Taiwan typically take around four to six weeks, but they are currently waiting for an order from January – plus a number of orders they have placed since then. As a preventive measure, they have also tried to get their imports by air freight, but that would cost a lot more money, Victoria says.
Bambu is currently stocked with Boba too, but the future is unknown. “Not that we were particularly astute when we saw this coming,” says Geman. But with 62 stores in North America, the company has a good relationship with its importer and sizable inventory that should last a while, he continues. “However, if this takes several months, we will run into some shortcomings.”
Geman recently helped open a new Bambu drive-through at 2215 South Broadway. The new store ceremoniously opened on April 24th, and while the store’s menu offers a variety of options alongside Boba, Geman doesn’t want the shortage to prevent customers from ordering Boba drinks.
Still, he admits that the shortage could encourage customers to try other toppings and add-on products such as pandan, coffee or grass jellies, coconut meat, avocado or honeydew fruit.
“Bambu is Vietnamese and we serve all kinds of other teas – with very fresh products like taro. There are lotus and basil seeds, which are ingredients that people are not that familiar with, ”he explains.
The lams also have a variety of add-ins in addition to boba – some they make themselves, like egg custard pudding, which is similar in texture to jelly, and sweet red bean and mung bean toppings that are comparable to the taste of mochi.
But Tea Street is known for its variety of boba that goes beyond the traditional tapioca balls and pops boba and brown sugar boba, which the lams make with their own brown sugar caramel.
“There are certain customers [who] are very tied to wanting Boba, ”says Patrick, adding that if for some reason the store runs out of Boba, these customers don’t order anything.
Tea Street is open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays from 12pm to 8pm and Fridays and Saturdays from 12pm to 9pm. Visit the cafe’s online menu here. Bambu is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. This is where you can find the Drive-Thru menu.
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Claire Duncombe is a journalist, photographer, multimedia storyteller and musician. She is a graduate of CU Denver and a proud Philadelphia native.