First developed in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea is usually a mixture of tea, milk, tapioca pearls called boba, or fruit-jelly balls. From sweet to tangy, these drinks can feature sweet syrups, coffee, candy or fruit toppings and more. But bubble tea lovers in the United States may need to have a back-up drink in mind the next time they order boba as restaurant owners brace for a potentially months-long backlog of ingredients shipped largely from Asia, Janelle Bitker first reported for the San Francisco Chronicle.
A massive shipping “logjam” and supply-chain crisis has been unfolding on the West coast for months, with at least 21 ships anchored off-shore simultaneously waiting to dock on Wednesday last week, Grace Kay reports for Business Insider. Shipping delays were also partly due to the Ever Given cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal last month, reports Kelly Tyko for USA Today .
As consumer spending increases, especially Covid-19-related online shopping, California ports have been swamped with an influx of imports on massive container ships since January. On average, 30 ships have been stuck outside Los Angeles ports each day this year, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.
After months of pandemic-related hurdles, more restaurants and tea shops are opening back up and facing an influx of business—all while supply is low and demand is high. Many boba shops in the United States import their boba directly from Taiwan. Due to droughts in Taiwan, many companies are following government orders to restrict water use, reports Kristie Hang for Eater. Businesses that make their own boba from scratch using tapioca starch may rely on shipments from Thailand.
“It's a perfect storm really,” Oliver Yoon, vice president of sales and global for Boba Direct, tells Business Insider.
Some U.S. boba shop leaders on the West coast anticipate an “industry-wide shortage,” as Boba Guys co-founders Andrew Chau and Bin Chen note in an announcement on Instagram. Boba Guys owns and operates the U.S. Boba Company, which mass produces bulk batches of boba at their company in Hayward, California, but relies on tapioca starch from Thailand to produce. “Some boba shops are already out. Others will run out in the next few weeks,” Chen and Chau say in a video posted to Instagram.
With 250 locations in the U.S. and another 70 shops expected to open this year, Kung Fu Tea is largest national boba chain in the country. Mai Shi, the company's marketing and public relations lead, tells USA Today the company is also expecting coconut powder and taro shortages this year. She expects the shortages to get worse as summer nears.
“We are using this as an opportunity to educate not only our franchisees but also customers that bubble tea is not just milk tea," Shi tells USA Today. "It can also be orange green tea, Hershey's S'more's Slush, Honey Lemonade, and Matcha Milk, or just a simple Kung Fu oolong tea."
Other shop owners are less concerned because it's typical to order several months of supply at a time, as Tomas Su, owner of the rapidly-expanding chain Sunright Tea in California, tells Eater.
“There is no need to worry,” Su tells Eater. "“In the absolute worst-case scenario, maybe your small local mom-and-pop boba shops [won’t] have boba on the menu for a day or two or they have to reach out to a different distributor, but it’s not going to affect boba drinkers because most shops buy in bulk for months in advance.”
Some companies are seeing a slightly frenzied stock-piling of boba following coverage of a possible shortage, Stacey Kwong, co-owner of Milk + T, which has several West coast locations, tells Eater. Kwong explains her supplier Tea Zone, one of the largest U.S. boba distributors, has run out of their popular A2000 boba balls, due at least in part to over-purchasing. They do have an
"ample supply" of A1000 boba available, which avid boba consumers may notice has a slight difference in texture, Eater reports.
Similarly, Kung Fu Tea's Shi tells USA Today that they're safeguarded from supply issues because they have warehouses on the East and West coasts. Shi is anticipating an increased demand in popularity for boba and other speciality tea drinks in general, regardless of supply availability.
"We have warehouses on both East and West Coast, so our shortage compared to other boba brands is way less significant,” Shi says. “However, we definitely see a trend that the demand for the entire bubble tea category is ever increasing as people want fresh, made-to-order drinks.”
While the pandemic has affected and uprooted countless businesses, the boba industry has still grown in popularity. According to Yelp, bubble tea was the most popular delivery item in California, Michigan and Hawaii during Covid-19. The industry should expect ample growth through 2027, according to Fortune Business Insights.
April 30 marks National Bubble Tea Day, a holiday created by the chain Kung Fu Tea, but this boba shortage might hinder celebrations. While it’s uncertain how long the shortage will last, the end of April might be the earliest companies and customers will see improvement, Yoon tells Business Insider.