Fifteen years ago, I stumbled into an odd little shop called Turbo Four that purported to sell performance car parts to young Asian students looking to soup up their Subarus. In truth, the shop was merely a front for the owners' sideline gig: making and selling bubble tea. To this day, I can still recall with absolute horror that first time chewy balls of tapioca came flying through a giant straw and into my mouth.
"I'm so glad we were the ones to pop your bubble tea cherry," says Paul Yu, who opened the shop way back in 2000 with his buddy John Tran. These days, Yu and Tran are partners in Fuel Hair, but 15 years ago they were 21-year-old pre-med students at Case who very intentionally attempted to kickstart a bubble tea craze in Cleveland.
"I guess we're the grandfathers of the movement," Yu laughs.
Like many Asians living in Cleveland, Yu and Tran had grown up with bubble tea being a part of their daily existence. Whether you hailed from Taiwan, Vietnam, Vancouver or San Francisco, you had your pick of bubble tea shops, each offering countless variations of the fruity, sweet beverage. But until Turbo Four opened up, there simply was nowhere to buy it locally.
"Back then none of the Asian groceries even stocked the ingredients or supplies to make it, so we had to order everything from New York or California — even the giant straws," Yu recalls.
Even in the pre-social media days of the early aughts, word quickly spread on the campuses of Case, Cleveland State and anywhere else Asian expats congregated. Before long, Turbo Four was selling between 100 and 200 bubble teas per day, according to Yu.
Given the early enthusiasm for bubble tea, Yu assumed that the craze would spread like wildfire across the landscape, but that hasn't been the case. Only now, with the recent opening of Kung Fu Tea, a popular bubble tea chain with locations in a dozen U.S. states, is the trend poised for a big push.
At its core, bubble tea is chilled tea mixed with milk and sugar. In the bottom of the cup are colorful tapioca balls. Large straws are used to suck up the beverage, balls and all. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Customers can choose from countless teas or coffees as the base. They can be blended with myriad fruit flavors into a slushie or smoothie. And then there are the add-ons that begin with tapioca pearls — called boba — but extend to jellies, bean pastes and even peanut butter. Many shops even allow shoppers to customize everything from sugar levels to ice, making the experience wholly intimidating to newbies.
"When you walk into a bubble tea shop, you have to be prepared to decide what you want," explains John Phan, a regular at Kenko in University Circle, home to the area's only Kung Fu Tea. "With bubble tea, as with most beverages you order, once you find something you like, you tend to stick with it."
Phan, who moved to Cleveland from the bubble tea-rich West Coast, suggests that newbies start with oolong milk tea with tapioca, which is not unlike British tea with milk and sugar. Well, except for the bubbles and straw.
"For me it's a nostalgia thing; it brings back memories of me visiting Vietnam and going to the street carts that charge 20 cents for a bubble tea," says Phan. "And even more so of growing up in Portland."
Turbo Four closed after three years, but Koko Bakery soon picked up the torch when that Asiatown bakery opened in 2005. They were later joined by random Asian restaurants that began serving it. When Jeff Su, a native of Taiwan, opened Vintage Tea and Coffee downtown last year, he knew that bubble tea would be part of the business plan.
"When I decided to open a tea and coffee shop, I thought it would be nice to have bubble tea," Su says. "It's unique and it represents where I'm from. It's like a cultural experience."
In his shop, Su says he encounters three types of bubble tea people: those who know and love bubble tea; those who have heard about it but never tried it; and those who come for coffee or tea and learn about it for the first time.
"I'm from Taiwan where bubble tea was invented," he says. "I've been drinking it since I was little. It's on every corner so you can literally pick one up anytime."
As for the beverage's slow rate of acceptance, especially among non-Asian customers, Su isn't at all surprised.
"It's like how good coffee is still slowly progressing through Asia," he says. "It takes time for things to spread across the world."
Founding father Paul Yu is a little more surprised.
"I thought it would have blown up more by now," he says. "But with the amount of Asian students coming here to go to school, it's going to happen eventually."