Boba Blitz: Wichita continues to see a rise in the number of boba tea options
Will Wichita's burgeoning boba tea scene be the next coffee shop craze or will it go extinct like frozen yogurt? Here's what some shop owners and customers had to say.
What happens when you take a coffee shop, toss in some K-pop music, a selfie-ready wall display and the taste of some buoyant and springy tapioca balls?
You get something that looks like a boba tea shop, which has become a refuge for many Wichitans.
"I use boba, I think, as like a stress coping mechanism," says Truc Dao. "It's like every time I have an exam ... it's probably time to go get a drink of boba, but ... also like hang out with my friends."
Dao, who's a Wichita State University student and boba enthusiast, says the sweet drink helps her cope with the demands of college.
So what is boba tea? Concocted in the 1980s under the neon-hued lights of Taiwan's night markets, the humble drink began as a mix of tea, milk, shaved ice and — most importantly — tapioca balls referred to as "boba."
In the past few years, Dao says the boba shop scene has exploded in Wichita.
In the early 2010s, there were only a couple of boba shops in town, and they were both on the east side. Today, that’s not the case.
Almost all of the 10 shops she mentioned have opened within the past six years, several of which are sprinkled along Rock Road. Pham says the growth has its pros and cons.
"The pros are, it keeps me motivated. We — my staff and I — push harder every day to provide the best products and customer services," she says.
"Of course, the cons is ... I feel like the market is getting a bit saturated just because of how the stores are a little bit too close to each other."
However, Pham — who is a Vietnamese immigrant — thinks the drink is a draw within itself and can avoid the pitfalls of other fads like frozen yogurt.
"I think boba is ... gonna prove itself in the American market," Pham says. "In America, I've seen people even coming up with more creative flavors than I've ever seen in Asia.
"Boba itself has its own category; it has its own devoted audience. I think boba is here to stay."
Diana Le, the owner of Boba Zone — Wichita's longest-running boba shop — remembers what it was like before the drink became more ubiquitous.
"I find it incredible that boba and other trends are growing in Wichita," Diana writes in an emailed response.
"When we first started, most Wichitans did not know what it was. There was a feeling of a light rush whenever someone came in, and it was fun to explain the beverage to people. Today, it is more widely known."
A lot of boba's rise to prominence in the U.S. can be attributed to young Asian Americans championing the drink. To Cat Le, it can be a way to add something to the fabric of America.
"I feel like boba is kind of that gateway that helped us be able to feel comfortable going out and hanging out, bringing our friends to enjoy ... living in America; enjoying our culture and being proud of it," she says. "I think that's definitely a positive thing.
Cat co-owns and operates Leaf Teahouse ICT in south Wichita.
She, like several other Vietnamese boba shop owners, opted to open a boba shop instead of a more traditional business.
"A lot of people have shifted their focus from opening a restaurant or nail salon to boba shops, which contributes to the massive boom of boba shops here in Wichita," Cat says.
When Cat decided to open her shop, she also saw another opportunity — to offer real Vietnamese recipes and ingredients to cater to an underserved market.
"In Wichita, we saw a lot of boba shops like serving ... milk teas, fruit teas, smoothies, slushies. But we were thinking that ... there was a boba shop missing that had ... genuine ingredients, like supporting people from ... our culture."
On top of being easier to maintain and manage, the availability of these ingredients has made it possible to open her shop.
"There's a whole bunch of distributor sources that it's easier to get those high-quality ingredients," Cat says. "So we just popped in at a good time when boba was on the rise ... and we're proud to get our ingredients from Vietnam, like our tea leaves and our coffee beans and different things."
And although a boba shop menu may seem daunting, Cat says there’s only one undisputed king.
"The number one most popular boba drink that I feel that everyone knows is always like the brown sugar- milk-tea drink," she says. "It's good for like anyone because it has no caffeine; it's not too complex of a flavor. I feel like everyone would like it — and it's sweet."
And for many young Asian Americans like Truc Dao, it’s hard not to romanticize about a drink like that.
"You gotta have the good quality tea and then the boba," Dao says, " ... but like a good soft boba.
"But also like the little vibes that come with it. I think like the cups are really cute. Like I think it all ties together."