Labobatory Experiments with the Future of Boba
While Labobatory may be neighbors with the traditional boba shops of the 626, the new store's drinks are anything but standard. From crowdsourced creations like the Wah! So Cookie! (a Speculoos cookie butter milk tea) to fresh flavors like the #LebaneseRoseMilk, Labobatory has reinvented a staple drink for a new generation. Giant Robot stopped by the shop to chat with owner Elton Keung about how he got his start in the food industry. Between running Kickstarter campaigns and traveling to Taiwan for research, we found he's still made time to do pop-up events and practice magic tricks.
By Angela Hsu
Photos by George Ko. Video edited by Sharon Choi.
Giant Robot: Where did you grow up?
Elton Keung: I actually grew up not too far from Labobatory. I went to San Marino High School. Before I lived in Hong Kong during my early childhood, and then New Jersey for middle school. For college I also went nearby to USC.
I actually didn’t have boba much until I moved to L.A, but my favorite place was just down the street from Labobatory. At the time it was called 85 Degrees Teahouse – unrelated to the bakery, just a teahouse – that later on got in trouble for using the name. Now they’re called iD Cha House.
GR: Were you always interested in the food industry? Did you know it would become your career?
EK: Not necessarily. I knew I was going to study business and entrepreneurship in college, and I had a unique opportunity to intern with Nguyen Tran at Starry Kitchen. Through interning for him, I came up with the idea of alcoholic boba drinks and started to pursue it.
GR: What did you do during the internship?
EK: We would cruise around running errands, and he would just tell me stuff, like how hard everything is in running a restaurant, how I shouldn't be in the restaurant industry, or how to just have the most fun I could, because it's not about trying to make a lot of money, but the passion and really liking what you're doing.
My parents were okay with this stuff when I was 22 or 23. They probably thought, “Oh, he’s still young, he’ll get a real job eventually.” It was towards my mid-20s, when things weren't going as well later on that asked why didn’t I get a proper job.
They were right; I could find a job. But I probably wouldn’t last for more than two months at that point, because I was so conditioned in running my own business. There are so many parts of running my own business I like that I don’t think I would be happy with a normal job. They eventually understood that.
GR: What do you like about running a small business?
EK: I like that everything is on you. How hard you work usually leads to how much you're rewarded. Also, you have no freedom and all the freedom almost at the same time. I typically just don't have a weekend because those nights are really busy at the store. That’s when people do come out for boba. I can’t go out on a normal weekend, but I can always make time to go to the big stuff by scheduling it out.
GR: Why go all the way to Taiwan to study boba?
EK: I was after boba’s origin story. Apparently I was the last person to get an interview with the creator of boba milk tea, so that was pretty awesome but pure coincidence. I just went down to Taichung on a whim, mostly to visit the site where boba was supposedly created.
That day, they were having a competition where they sent all the representatives from every branch of the tea house Chun Shui Tang (春水堂) to the original Taichung shop. It was a milk tea-making competition where they measured everything to the finest detail. And the creator herself was there that day, so they invited me and I got to talk to her for like 30 minutes after the whole event.
GR: How long were you in Taiwan?
EK: About three weeks, just to travel around, hang out and try all sorts of Taiwanese boba places. I go back pretty often, about every year. On this most recent trip, I got a chance to go to the all the tea farms, which was a new experience. That was to primarily source tea leaves, but I still had all kinds of boba.
There's this place in Gongguan called Cheng San Din (陳三鼎), which is my favorite boba. The volume they have and the way they cook it is phenomenal. It's so simple: mostly just the boba ball, ice and whole milk. That’s the whole drink. The boba gives the milk all that flavor; it’s amazing how good it is.
GR: Where does Labobatory fall on the spectrum of using synthetic or organic ingredients?
EK: I would say somewhere between industry normal and organic. We have the option of using Strauss organic milk, and we have many drinks that come with that as a base. I think the industry actually got popular through non-dairy creamer, which is lactose free. 90 percent of Asian people are lactose intolerant, so the industry wouldn't have survived for this long without that product. But people are starting to be very conscious of what they're eating these days, and it is bouncing back the other way. So I’m somewhere in-between.
GR: Before Labobatory, you ran Boba 7, which operated as part of a larger restaurant. How did that come about?
EK: The owner of the restaurant at the time, also a USC alum, wanted to do boba in downtown L.A. I wanted to do alcoholic boba and was interested in partnering with him for a bar in Monterey Park. He ended up giving me this blank slate of a location hidden in the back of his Thai restaurant that had a beer and wine license. So I ended up creating a soju-based beer and wine menu and ran that for four and a half years.
GR: Those four years were when the hype started to build. Was hiding the location of Boba 7 like that intentional?
EK: It was intentional, but I couldn't have a storefront. That location was my best opportunity, and with zero startup capital that was the best thing I could do. For what it was, I did great with it. But I was never able to achieve the volume to be truly successful. And it wasn’t scalable: I couldn't open a bunch of hidden bookshops all over L.A. After four and a half years, it was pretty apparent that it wasn’t going to have another take-off point. It was very stagnant, and time for me to mix things up, do something a little different. Even a year before that, I should have made the decision to close it.
Then we ran a Kickstarter campaign starting last November. Today or yesterday is the one year anniversary of that Kickstarter being successful. It was a tough time just doing nothing but fundraising. I'm blessed that so many people came through; I think I had over 450 backers.
GR: Why did you decide to continue through Kickstarter?
EK: My mentor did a Kickstarter trying to raise half a million dollars to open his restaurant. I was part of his committee that planned the fundraiser, so I got a lot of hands-on experience on how to run a Kickstarter for something that isn't the right fit for Kickstarter, like launching a restaurant.
Kickstarter isn't the best platform, but I felt it had the most brand recognition in terms of crowdfunding and it was a good place to get your story out there. Whether or not I was even successful in the campaign, I knew it would make my cause known. I also wanted the all-or-nothing model of Kickstarter, because I wouldn't even be able to open a store like this if I didn’t reach my goal. I wouldn't want to halfheartedly take $20,000-$30,000 and not be able to open a store. Ultimately, it was the right choice and we succeeded.
GR: A few people even donated $1000.
EK: Those people all get free drinks for life. I made them little key chains to shake for free drinks when they come in. There were also two $10,000 backers. I actually went to Texas for one of them to do a pop-up, but unfortunately there was some problem with the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, so I’ll go back again next year. He’s an old high school friend of mine; I talked to him a long time to get his support.
The other guy came out of nowhere from Boston. He read this article off of WeChat, and all of a sudden funded me over Thanksgiving weekend last year. It was insane. I think he's opening another restaurant in March or April, so I'll be going there and doing alcoholic boba as part of his launch.
GR: Were you surprised by how many strangers donated to you?
EK: I knew I could hit over 20 backers, but I knew I needed around 50. I wasn’t sure if I could get that far. I didn't have a true plan; a lot of it was being hopeful. I've seen many other people follow in what I did. Some were successful while others weren't. I just got lucky, I guess.
I think people donated because of the value they were getting back. For donating $15, you get two drinks that come in nice flasks. I’m actually losing money on that Kickstarter reward. Then there were people who donated more and got to create a drink, which is pretty cool. It’s their own menu item with their name on it, so I feel like the value is there. It's harder to get straight donations, versus something with an incentive that makes it worthwhile.
GR: Like the Asian Boba Girl (ABG) I saw earlier.
EK: The girl who named the ABG wanted a drink with a bunch of colors; I could only do two. The middle section of my menu is still crowd sourced. But I always have ideas coming in, so I'm constantly updating the list of drinks. Version 3.0 of the menu will be coming out before the year ends.
GR: Do you have a philosophy that guides your menu?
EK: I try not to look at other people so much, because I don't want to copy others. Just because the butterfly flower tea is popular right now doesn’t mean my shop needs one. It’s just this blue stuff that reacts with citrus and makes it pink.
A lot of customers do throw good ideas my way, and I'll try to make them happen. But the whole process of creating a drink is pretty hard. It’s a lot of fine tuning, drinking tea and then being lightheaded after drinking too much.
GR: What do you think makes your drinks stand out?
EK: Every drink shop that’s been around here in the last decade sells very traditional things. I try to up the ante on every single thing on the menu. Also the fact that it was created by the community sets it apart. It’s a low-budget project where I’ve done the best I could. Maybe at some point I’ll open a bar in Los Angeles that features alcoholic boba on its cocktail menu permanently.
GR: This Labobatory shop doesn't do alcohol, right?
EK: It's all situational. The store doesn’t have a liquor license so there isn't alcohol at this store. But Labobatory is also a company name that umbrellas everything. For example, last night I did a pop-up event of alcoholic boba by Labobatory at another bar. So Labobatory is a brand associated with everything boba-related. Pop-up events are good to stay relevant outside the store, especially because I think I do make the best alcoholic boba. I want to be able to share that with people, not just in L.A., but different places as well.
GR: On Instagram, you call yourself a boba magician. How did you get into magic?
EK: I started learning it second semester senior year of high school, when I had nothing much to do. It was fun to learn a trick one night, and then do it first through sixth period at school for every single person. But recently in the past year or so, I’ve met more people who are pursuing magic, so I guess my magical powers have increased exponentially. Now I’m a magician member at Magic Castle. I want to get to a point where I do perform there every week.
GR: The sign on your storefront specifically says Labobatory Beta. Why beta?
EK: It’s embarrassing. I don’t know. Everyone’s in beta! No one's a complete product. This store is my first store, and we’re still testing and trying to create new things. I feel like that's life. We should always be improving. That’s why I’ll forever be in beta.
GR: Do you see yourself expanding into other businesses in the food industry?
EK: I think about this a lot, especially in the winter when boba sales are quite low. I love making boba, and I provide an amazing product, but sometimes the drink doesn't get the love it deserves.
There are a couple ideas that I would love to pursue. But it just takes so much time to run a restaurant, it’s hard to delve into other things. I want to focus on the shop and get it running well. Then we’ll go from there.
Labobatory is located at 819 W Las Tunas Dr, San Gabriel, CA 91776.
You can contact them at (626) 804-1717.
You can also check out their website here.