Hoping Howard is right place for tea

July 08, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

"Bubble tea? What's that?" the man asked, edging closer to Thomas Pak's booth at The Mall in Columbia.

Pak started to explain - "it's tea with tapioca" - but as soon as "tapioca" left Pak's mouth, the man backed up as if he had seen a rat.

"Oh, no, I can't do tapioca," he said, power-walking to the welcoming smells of shakes and burgers at the nearby food court.

Pak sighed. "It's hard to get people to try new things," he groaned.

From his sparsely decorated Monkeybee Bubble Tea kiosk, which opened three weeks ago, Pak sells bubble tea, also known as boba, a Taiwanese-style chilled, sweetened tea with tapioca balls at the bottom that drinkers suck up through extra wide straws.

The tea is wildly popular in Asia, college towns and "almost everywhere that has a Chinatown," said Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the United States.

But Simrany and others in the tea industry hope that bubble tea will boost the numbers of American tea drinkers by appealing to coffee drinkers and to younger customers. Older women are generally tea's biggest consumers.

"For bubble tea to truly succeed, it will have to find new markets," Pak said as he scanned the faces in the sparse mall traffic. "It will have to make it in places like this."

What is bubble tea like? Everyone has a different answer, even its fans.

"It's kind of like a milkshake," said Jihfan Lin, a Potomac resident who sometimes has six bubble teas a day.

"Kind of like chai," ventures Bea Tam of Columbia, who consumes two or three large Japanese-style taro flavored teas a week.

"Iced tea with a jelly kick," said Columbia resident Kristine Ramirez, as she took a long pull on her green tea drink, the black tapioca balls sliding up the straw.

Bubble tea is actually tea, either green or black, mixed with powdered flavors in a martini shaker, and added to ice and black tapioca bubbles, hence the name "bubble tea." (Boba is Cantonese slang for "big breasts.")

Making a drink takes two or three minutes. Pak, or one of his friends who occasionally stop by to help out, pours chilled tea into a martini shaker and then adds one of 26 flavor powders, ranging from almond to honeydew. The shaken mixture is then added to a layer of tapioca balls.

Prices range from $2.75 to $3.75.

The feel of the tapioca balls tends to confuse most American tea drinkers. Many said they didn't like it at first, primarily because of the texture. But getting used to the exotic mixture usually doesn't take long for those who learn to love it.

When Natasha Giraldo had her first sip of bubble tea around Christmas at a friend's house, she described the tapioca balls as "squishy" and wasn't sure if she enjoyed it.

"I started to like it maybe two minutes later," said Giraldo, 18, of Ellicott City.

While Giraldo occasionally stops by the Monkeybee, on the second floor of the mall, others are more fanatical. Until recently, Tam and friend Kim Clark, both of Columbia, would routinely make a 45-minute trip to College Park for bubble tea.

Now that the Monkeybee is open, Tam and Clark, who also work at The Mall in Columbia, stop by two or three times a week.

While much of Pak's clientele is Asian, the 25-year-old knows he must appeal to a wider market if he is to succeed.

Pak is on leave from his job at the McLean, Va.-branch of Booz Allen and Hamilton, a management and technology consulting firm. He mulled over possible bubble tea locations for several years and came close to opening a kiosk in College Park or near another major college campus, before deciding on Howard County because he thought it would offer the right ethnic mix.

There are about 19,000 Asians in Howard County, compared with 98,000 in Montgomery County, but Pak still thinks Columbia is a good place to test bubble tea's broader appeal.

While Pak has developed a few non-Asian regulars, he often spends 13 hours a day at the stand, occasionally mixing drinks but mostly scanning the crowd and answering questions about it.

Some tea experts have high hopes for boba. According to the Tea Council of the United States, the average tea drinker is a woman older than 35. Simrany hopes that bubble tea will help create a new generation of younger tea drinkers.

"Bubble tea breaks all the rules," said Simrany. "It's an unusual sensation, it's fun, it's social."

But others aren't so sure.

"It's a great product, but it's a niche product," said Brian Keating, president of the Sage Group International LLC, a Seattle group that tracks tea trends.

Keating is pessimistic about boba's chances of going mainstream. "We've interviewed ... operators and consumers, and pearls don't seem to have a universal appeal," Keating said.

Coffee purveyors are not especially worried about boba. Fifty-two percent of Americans drink coffee daily, while 31 percent drink tea daily, according to the National Coffee Association in New York City.

"The tastes are so different, we regard them as complementary products," said Gary Goldstein, a spokesman for the National Coffee Association.

Howard County residents seem to agree. While the flow in and out of Starbucks is constant, the Monkeybee kiosk is quiet.

"I think boba will become big here," Pak said. "Eventually."

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