Numerous new bubble tea shops open in Toronto, each has own speciality
Bubble tea: a drink that no one wants to miss out on.
BY: TIFFANY FUNG
When you walk around the intersection of Yonge and Finch Streets, it is not surprising to see numerous bubble tea shops right beside each other. You see a shop with many customers in it, then you walk a few steps down and find another shop with the same amount of people. These shops are never empty despite the huge competition. A question arises in your mind: how do these bubble tea shops survive?
Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea is a tea-based drink with toppings in it. Flavours include grape and honeydew. Toppings like tapioca – the “bubbles” that gives the tea its name – and jelly are optional.
According to an article from Toronto Life, the first bubble tea shop in Toronto, Green Grotto, opened in 1993. Now in 2018, you “can’t walk five steps without running into a bubble tea shop,” says Christina Cheung, a staff writer from BlogTO.
There are many Taiwan bubble tea chains in Toronto, including Tenren’s Tea and Chatime. Tenren’s Tea has 11 locations, and Chatime has 29 branches in the city. These chains are still expanding.
As bubble tea becomes increasingly popular, Toronto becomes a hub for bubble tea shops. The majority of the shops are common though, because bubble teas are all the same. However, the most successful businesses have found unique ways to distinguish themselves in the market.
Every bubble tea store differentiates itself “by offering different kinds of editions and flavours that you’ve never heard before,” says Cheung. Brown sugar tapioca and cheese foam are two examples.
Mainstream tapioca is cold and sweet without any additional taste. Consumers shake the tea and tapioca together before drinking. Brown sugar tapioca is sweet, too, but it’s hot and has a brown sugar taste. The taste of brown sugar matches well with the tapioca texture, and the contrast between cold tea and hot tapioca is unexpectedly tasty. It is recommended that customers don’t shake the drink, so they can have a mouthful of hot tapioca and iced tea at the same time.
Cheese foam is a layer of cream that is put on top of the tea. It is made of cheese powder, salt, milk and whipped cream. The texture is creamy, and it tastes sweet, salty and milky. The proper way to drink cheese foam is to not shake the drink, and drink without a straw – you sip from the edge. This method allows people to consume half cheese foam and half tea in one sip.
“They each have their own kind of specialities.”
Shops like The Alley and Royaltea are famous for these specialities.
These ideas are fascinating because they were never offered in the market before. “They’re gimmicks,” Cheung explains, “They work and draw people in.”
When there are new bubble tea concepts, news outlets like BlogTO write posts about them, which brings the shops publicity.
However, Cheung emphasizes if the newly offered products don’t taste good, shops that offer the products will eventually lose business because quality is as important as gimmicks.
The latest bubble tea trend is DIY menus.
Opened less than a year ago in Toronto, Labothéry is a bubble tea shop where consumers get to choose every component of the drink, ranging from tea base, flavours, toppings, sugar amount, to ice level.
After picking up all the ingredients themselves, customers hand them to the bartenders to mix. Labothéry doesn’t have a menu, so people can mix together anything.
“People are more self-conscious of what they’re having,” Jeffrey Shek, owner of Labothéry, says. Due to this, Labothéry‘s goal is to make everyone their own personalized drink so they will be comfortable to consume the beverage.
Shek says many customers from his store have never tried bubble tea before, but they visit Labothéry because they are exposed to what is put into their beverages. “They are really opened to try it first and they fall in love with it at the end.”
“A new concept that you can build your own bubble tea.”
“People feel special about it [different flavours of handmade tapioca] rather than just plain tapioca.”
Another way shops differentiate themselves from their competition is by focusing on one particular aspect of the drink – tapioca.
Mr. Sun is a bubble tea brand that has 20 years of history in Taiwan. It recently opened its first shop in Ontario at Pacific Mall in Markham. The brand is well-known for its tapioca: they are freshly made by the shop daily. “Tapioca is one of the things that helps to lighten up the drink,” Jacky Chow, owner of Mr. Sun, says.
Similar to Mr. Sun, OneZo Tapioca is known for their handcrafted tapioca. The brand has six branches across Ontario.
The two shops’ tapioca come in various tastes like mango and coconut. They have more options compared to other shops that only sell mainstream tapioca.
“They (customers) really enjoy the fact that our tapioca is handmade,” Bao Dao, digital marketing director at OneZo Tapioca points out. Chow agrees, saying consumers also love the unique idea of “dressing up” their drinks with the different flavours of tapioca.
OneZo Tapioca and Mr. Sun show the process of making tapioca as well. “People can actually see it being made,” Dao says, “You’re opening up the opportunity for people to ask questions.”
Handmade tapioca is low in calories and don't have many preservatives and chemicals, because they're not pre-packaged.
As an experienced food blogger, Cheung thinks more bubble tea shops will open in Toronto in the near future, but she says the trend is almost reaching its saturation point “but that doesn’t mean that people realize this thing will stop.”
Labothéry, Mr. Sun, and OneZo Tapioca all have their own specialty to attract customers. OneZo Tapioca and Labothéry are in the process of opening up more branches in Toronto.
However, in such a competitive market, these specialties are being normalized and used by other stores. If a bubble tea shop wants to survive in the market for a long time, then it’ll have to come up with new gimmicks in a frequent manner.
Watch our bubble tea video here.
Photo courtesy: BE Creative Media, Rosalind Chang (unsplash), Charles Deluvio (unsplash).