On the hunt for bubble tea? Here’s why it might be in short supply

Abdel Jimenez, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

If you’ve become hooked on boba tea, the Taiwanese drink filled with tapioca balls, you’d better get your fix now.

The chewy balls that fill the drinks are in short supply, and at least one local boba supplier is already putting limits on its products. The squishy pearls, which are produced in Asian countries and shipped to the U.S., are ubiquitous to boba tea, also known as bubble tea.

Boba Direct in Arlington Heights, Ill., which supplies tapioca balls, beverage mixes, and bubble tea equipment to about 200 stores and restaurants in the Chicago area, is limiting its products to Midwestern clients, said Oliver Yoon, vice president of sales and global marketing.

The company, which has received calls in the past week from tea shops on the West and East coasts in search of supplies, isn’t running low on tapioca balls, but it wants to preserve its stock, Yoon said.

“The pandemic has disrupted the supply chain,” he said. “The issue is that ports are inundated with shipment containers. There’s a backlog at the ports.”

Yoon said he hopes to receive the company’s regular shipments by mid- or late-May.

Some bubble tea stores, including Tea Ninja in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, are already running low.

“We could run out before the end of the next month,” said Tea Ninja barista Jack Van Horn.

In order to weather the shortage, Tea Ninja is making just a single batch of boba each morning during weekdays, which is enough to last most of the day.

“The store closes at 8 (p.m.), and if we run out at 7 (p.m.), we won’t make a new patch,” Van Horn said. “Some customers do get mad, but most are understanding.”

On Wednesday, Shamin Ghimine, 33, purchased bubble tea drinks at Tea Ninja for her children. Ghimine was visiting from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where she’s also noticed the shortage.

At her favorite cafe in Detroit Lakes, she often orders matcha tea, a Japanese green tea, with tapioca pearls, but was told by workers that the store was experiencing a shortage. “So it’s definitely a big issue,” she said.

Eat Me Milk Me’s supplier informed the West Town boba tea shop it was limiting orders of tapioca balls to prevent other stores from stocking up and causing a shortage, said owner Freda Duan.

“If people keep ordering tapioca, they (suppliers) will run out like groceries did with toilet paper,” Duan said, referring to toilet paper hoarding early in the pandemic.

Bingo Tea, in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, buys supplies in bulk and has about 35 boxes of tapioca pearls. The supply is enough to last the store about halfway through the year, said manager Lin Yao.

Because Bingo Tea has vast supplies, nearby bubble tea store managers have come asking for supplies after running low on pearls.

“I get asked if I have boba to spare and if I could sell them product,” Yao said. “But I decline their requests.”

The shortage of boba comes after months of heightened demand. For many consumers, boba has become a “cheap” experience for friends and family to enjoy during the pandemic, said Mai Shi, a spokeswoman for New York-based Kung Fu Tea, which has six locations in the Chicago area.

Kung Fu Tea’s sales last month increased 55% compared with March 2020, Shi said.

Months of strong demand mean 2 Asian Brothers, in Chicago’s North Park Neighborhood, is well-positioned to ride out the shortage. The cafe had stocked up on boba because of the rush of business.

“We always like to be prepared,” said cashier Andy Lam.