The boba boom: How Burnaby became a hot spot for bubble tea
As the city prepares to host the 2022 Vancouver Bubble Tea Festival, what are your memories of bubble tea in Burnaby?
This article was written by guest author Vikki Hui. She is a journalist who grew up in Hong Kong and specializes in cultural and community issues. In her spare time, you can spot her taking photos of bunnies in Richmond while sipping bubble tea.
If you’ve ever tried to look for bubble tea in Burnaby, you might have been overwhelmed by the vast number of options—especially on Kingsway.
Milk tea with pearls, Four Seasons fruit tea, watermelon slush—you name it, Kingsway has it. Over two dozen bubble tea shops can be found in the area, with a whopping half of those concentrated in Crystal Mall.
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In fact, Burnaby is so much of a bubble tea hub that it was chosen to host this year’s Vancouver Bubble Tea Festival, which promises two days of celebration filled with delectable delicacies and fun festivities.
But how did bubble tea become so popular in Burnaby?
When Tea Plus opened in Crystal Mall in 2000, the Taiwanese import had yet to become mainstream.
The shop’s whirring blenders and rattling drink shakers have been a part of the food court’s soundscape since the mall’s beginning, as well as a playlist to owner Rose’s one-woman show.
“I’m probably the oldest person in the bubble tea business,” joked Rose (who asked to be identified by her first name) as she stirred her first batch of tapioca pearls while simultaneously preparing fruits, steeping tea, and making bubble waffles for her morning patrons.
Rose became interested in the business when she worked in a bubble tea shop in Richmond at the old Aberdeen Centre, where the bubble tea trend was beginning to take off with businesses such as Pearl Castle at the helm.
She enjoyed making drinks and seeing the smiles on satisfied customers—and it seemed like a good business opportunity.
“A friend told me that businesses related to water are the most profitable … and the costs are low while the profits are high,” she explained.
Rose earned her chops from a Taiwanese mentor, and opened Tea Plus in the middle of the brand new Crystal Mall food court, where she witnessed the rise of the bubble tea boom.
Bubble tea shops as Burnaby knows them
While Tea Plus is one of the earliest bubble tea shops to set down roots in Burnaby, some might remember encountering the drink at Cineplex Cinemas Metropolis in the late 90s.
“It would have been around 1998 or 99. They added it at the cafe alongside the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” said Vancouver artist Chris Bentzen, who used to work at the theatre.
Menu options included slushes and a milk tea, according to Bentzen, and it was popular with the young high school and university students who worked there.
Cineplex confirmed with the Burnaby Beacon that the Metropolis location was one of the three that offered bubble tea for a while, in addition to SilverCity Riverport Cinemas and Scotiabank Theatre Vancouver.
“… More recently, our guests have gravitated towards more traditional concessions and it’s no longer available,” said Cineplex spokesperson Samantha Schecter.
And the term “bubble tea shop” might conjure up a different image to those in Burnaby.
“I think what was unique about [Burnaby] was I looked up a lot of these places, and almost all of them are actually restaurants. And so it wasn’t just a place where you would grab a cup, and then that was it,” said Christopher Cheung, a journalist at The Tyee.
Cheung wrote a chapter in an upcoming book on Burnaby’s Chinese Canadian history, and he had come of age together with bubble tea in Vancouver, as he wrote in My Cup of Bubble Tea.
“It’s that social space that happens, you know, after 9pm. … If you go down Kingsway, you’ll see these places all absolutely packed,” he added.
Cheung had his first bubble tea in Burnaby at Little Tea House when it was still in its old location in Station Square and had an arcade.
And many would remember the now-closed ZETA Café in North Burnaby, which was the perfect after-school spot with a wide selection of board games, and even billiards. Or perhaps the grand piano and towering bubble teas at The One might spring to mind.
“I think before you had more bottom-up kind of creativity from people trying to do something unique… but of course, now, they’re competing with these big franchises that are coming up,” said Cheung.
What’s next for bubble tea?
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when bubble tea first landed in Burnaby, or even when the trend truly began to take off, Cheung remembers the very moment he realized it had gone from a subtle Asian trait to a mainstream must-have.
“There was this very clear day where I was just walking down Robson and there was a bunch of office people. They were of every ethnicity visibly. And they were all drinking bubble tea,” he said.
“And, you know, it’s downtown. Starbucks is everywhere. And a lot of people would get a Starbucks. But instead, there were these groups of people that were choosing to get bubble tea.”
Prior to the bubble tea boom in 2015 and 2016, local bubble tea shops were pockets of Asian culture where members of the diaspora could express their identities—much like the Facebook page, Subtle Asian Traits.
“It’s a space where you would be able to experience it… where elsewhere it was quite rare to find… But as for people who are from abroad, I think when they miss that taste of home, there is a place where they can get that familiarity, so it works both ways,” said Cheung.
This was especially true in Burnaby, where Taiwanese immigrants made up 6.7% of the city’s population, according to the 2016 census, making them the fourth-largest group of immigrants ranking just after China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
“Now, even if you’ve never had bubble tea growing up, it’s impossible to avoid it,” he said.
Instead of viewing this expanding market as a bubble, Cheung remains optimistic about the globalization of bubble tea.
“My boss had asked me before, ‘Are these old ones being pushed out of the market? Are they being gentrified by these big ones? And are they causing the prices to inflate?’ I don’t really see that,” he said.
“Everything’s still serving its own clientele… And I think it’s the same with coffee or with a lot of other kinds of food that you see everywhere. I don’t know what it would be like two years down the line. But it seems to be OK.”
A community bubble
Back at Tea Plus, Rose believes the market is saturated and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to run the business.
But one thing she has noticed over the years is that classic flavours have always remained the most popular—especially milk tea with pearls and honey green tea.
The same can be said about Tea Plus, which has now accumulated at least two generations of loyal customers, as well as a market relatively untapped by the fancy Instagrammable chains: Seniors.
When Rose saw an older man slowly make his way up to the counter, she knew exactly what he was going to order.
“The pearls aren’t ready yet,” she told him, as he sighed with disappointment. “Come back in a bit!”
She explained that Tea Plus is popular with seniors who frequent the mall partly because there’s a wide selection of hot Chinese drinks, but also because some just love the tapioca pearls.
And the trust she has built with returning customers is something that is difficult to achieve at larger chains.
“Sometimes customers would treat me like a doctor and ask me which drinks would be good for them, such as when they’re on their periods,” Rose chuckled.
As Rose contemplates hanging up her tapioca-stirring ladle and retiring after two fulfilling decades, she can’t help but think about what she would be leaving behind.
“We have a bunch of loyal customers who’ve been drinking our bubble tea for over 20 years. Some of them grew up drinking our drinks and now they’re coming back with their families. … Our drinks may not be the tastiest, but they still come back because they prefer our flavours,” she said.
“I’m really going to miss my loyal customers.”