Boba Talk - Boba Guys

 

One thing that was missing when I was growing up was just hearing other Asian Americans talk about what it's like being Asian American.  We spent so much time, me included, worried about fitting in that we tend to forget or ignore what it means to be Asian in America and the world.  In light of this, the team at Giant Robot and I are producing Boba Talk, a series of unfiltered conversations with creatives, artists, and entrepreneurs about their work and what it means to be Asian American.

Our first Boba Talk is with Boba Guys.  Co-founders Andrew Chau (left) and Bin Chen (right) have completely flip flopped the boba game.  After leaving their jobs at Timbuk2 they embarked on a bobalicious journey of bringing the third wave coffee movement to boba.  Now, Boba Guys stands as one of the most successful boba stores in the U.S. and are still pushing the envelope of a traditional boba shop.

Full audio of the Boba Guys Boba Talk.

Trailer of the Boba Guys Boba Talk. Full video interview coming soon.

 

by George Ko.  Transcription by Eric Nakamura, Editor in Chief

Photo and Video by George Ko

Bin: Hey I’m Bin

Andrew: And I’m Andrew

Bin: And we’re the Boba Guys. This is a Giant Robot Boba Talk!

 

GR: Can you talk about the boba you’re drinking?

Bin: Today I’ve got the Strawberry Jasmine Tea Fresca. We use real strawberries. We make it similar to an aqua fresca you get at a taqueria and it’s made with our jasmine milk tea.

A: I didn’t know you were going to ask that question, ‘cause I made a complicated one! I like my black teas, so I used two types of black teas: I used our basic black tea, which is 3 combinations of black teas, and I also used a high end black tea we called Golden Honey. Then I put a disproportionate amount of milk, but in this case oat milk. I like it lot; it’s really creamy. And then we have our homemade grass jelly, a little bit of honey, and a little bit of syrup. So it’s a lot of steps.

Bin: Oh my god.

A: So don’t order that. I mean you could can probably order it at our stores but don’t order it at our stores.

 

GR: Do you guys have a secret menu?

A: Yes, a version of this drink would be on our secret menu. Oh, there’s coffee in here too!

 

GR: So what do you call it?

A: Oh there’s no name for this exact version. But the one I generally make called “Andrew’s Special”, I generally like a Hong Kong Yin Yuang Nai Cha (奶茶

鴛鴦Milk Tea with Coffee) but with dairy. I put condensed milk and coffee with the tea but with extra dairy and then I make it half sweet, so it’s a half step down, then I add honey and grass jelly. That you can order.

Bin: Yin Yuang Nai Cha ya!

GR: Let’s start with the beginning. How did Boba Guys happen, this dream of opening a boba shop?

Bin: We worked together at this company called Timbuk2. They make messenger bags and backpacks here in San Francisco. I was creative director there and Andrew was a manager. Every time we were having lunch together, we were always thinking what’s a cool company we could start together? Initially we were thinking oh it’s a startup, it’s a lifestyle company, apparel, soft goods. Every time we were thinking about this we were drinking boba—

A: Just like this!

Bin:I mean literally like this!

A: It was literally like this. Six, eight years ago we would be sitting on a bench or in our headquarters at Timbuk2 there was this couch. We would just sit there for hours. Boba was our thing. Or playing foosball!

Bin: Oh yeah!

A:We would put the boba on the side of the table and make sure we wouldn’t hit the ball hard enough so that it would fall over. But boba was the central theme around everything, much like this boba talk!

Bin: So we grew up drinking boba. So I grew up in New Jersey. The boba from our childhood was this powder, non dairy creamers— that was just kind of what we grew up with, really really sweet boba. I kind of fell off the bandwagon in college, but then when I moved back to the bay area I started drinking boba again, and it was still super, super sweet. So one day we were just like, “Why don’t we just make boba with better ingredients?” And nobody was doing this. So, I think we went to your apartment right?

A: Yeah, we started working on recipes from YouTube.

Bin: Yup we started learning how to make boba. And then we had a friend, Robert, who owned this ramen shop, Ken Ken Ramen. It was a Japanese ramen shop on 18th and Mission. He was nice enough to let us do our little boba pop up thing. So in 2011 we actually served to the public part time (but we kept our day jobs, and we kept our day jobs for a really long time). People really loved it, we got articles on Good Magazine and we started to build a following. After that, in 2013 we decided to open our first store in Mission, and the rest was history.

A: Yeah. Here we are! Here is the store we just opened recently (The Boba Guys Fillmore Store).So literally, 2 weeks ago.

Bin: It’s our biggest.

bobaguys-1.jpg

GR: How many stores do you have?

A: Officially, with another 3 ready to go. We just opened our new New York store last week, Bin was there. We’re about to open our next San Francisco store and then we’re going to back to New York and open our third New York store. So that’s pretty much our life right now, which is fun. It’s actually surprisingly more fun than I thought, because no store is the same.

GR: Did you hone your recipe in your pop up? What was that like? You go on YouTube and look at Dave Arnold, the mixologist at Momofuku, reinventing drinks, but no one’s really done that with boba. I remember in your photos in your pop up you guys were wearing lab coats.

Bin: We kind of had a science motif because we weren’t experts in the beginning. We only had three drinks that we could make reliably. They were the Classic, the Jasmine, and the Soy Milk Tea. Those were the three drinks we always had on hand. But every week we would always have an idea for a new drink. Horchata Boba was one of them. We were in the Mission District so every taqueria would have their own horchata. So we ended up learning how to make that. Every week we would come up with these ideas. Some of them would work and some of them wouldn’t pan out. But because we had the lab coats and we would tell people, hey this is just experimentation, everyone was willing to give us feedback. So that’s kind of how we built our menu out in the early days. Even today, Andrew works on the product more, but we’re still experimenting on a lot of stuff. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

bobaguys-3.jpg

A: Yeah, if I could just add a little bit: both Bin and I— I mean you can’t tell we’re Asian haha— so you think science, you know. But we both did marketing and design and stuff, so we are in the creative arts side. But when we were approaching Boba Guys, I discovered that we were more rational people than we thought. We would essentially say in this combination, what are all the different steps? We would list out all the permutations on a spreadsheet. We would attack every permutation for that day. Sometimes, 10 hours straight, which was a whole other thing.

Bin: Our whole mouths would go numb.A: Our mouth would literally go numb. We couldn’t sleep. One weekend we just did it too much. It was over the top. I think it kept me off of milk and boba for 3 weeks.

Bin: We backed off.

GR: So the Boba Guys got sick of boba!

A: We were legitimately stomach sick. We went to a Thai/Indian place since we love Thai/Indian food, and this was after 10 straight hours of testing and drinking. We were thinking oh we just drank a little bit. But after a while it accumulates. At dinner, we both didn’t want to say anything. I think Bin or I said first: “Dude, I want to throw up. I don’t feel good.” It was probably the only breaking point that I’ve ever had with boba— of anything actually. My body gave out.

Bin: I totally forgot about that!

A: That was crazy. So, the idea was that we were very rational. That’s some Asian part. We were very meticulous and I said, “This whole group of combinations don’t work,” or “this group did. So let’s go down this path” Over time, we optimized it. And as Bin said, we tested with the public, so the public helped us out. At the time, when social media was just coming out— Facebook was coming out, but Instagram was not big yet. So we were kind of putting up everything publicly and saying, “Hey, we don’t know what we’re doing. What do you think is the best?” I think at the time the world hadn’t seen something yet: someone so foolish and so honest. We were like play four dollars and roll the dice!

GR: Do you think your backgrounds in advertising (for Bin) and business (for Andrew) influenced you? Your process of making Boba is very similar to the Eric Ries’s Lean Startup Model.

A: Actually we have influence from the Facebook model.

Bin: We used to have emblems for our “Next Level Quality” seal. At first, it said, straight from Facebook, “Move fast and break things.”

A: It’s right there! (Andrew pointed at the seal in the store) “Move fast and make things.”

Bin: So we actually started breaking things, so that’s why we changed to making things.

A: Sorry Zuckerberg, we basically ripped off Facebook.

Bin: It was that spirit, you know. We both had startups before. I think a lot of people that get into food get into it a couple of ways. They either get into it by culinary school or apprenticing. But fewer people applied it like a startup, have a very barebones product—

A: Having an MVP—

Bin: Yeah, a Minimum Viable Product.: get that out there and see if there’s any traction, and then go from there. That’s kind of what we apply in. Even until this day, each store we open is a little bit different. There’s no Boba Guys store that has a full size kitchen. This is the very first time we’re doing it. There’s no store that has a section dedicated to nitrogen tea on tap. There’s no Boba Guys store that has a bakery built in the back, which is now in our San Carlos store. Every store, instead of just making the same store over and over again, has been trying the push the limits to what we think might work.

A: Just to cap that, Bin always says we’re not here to sell a product: we’re in the experience business. So, our mission is to bridge cultures. So what we try to do is have people experience cultures. And it doesn’t have to be Asian vs. non-Asian culture. It could be techie vs artisanal culture. It could be West Coast, California vs. New York culture. We’re in San Franscico right now, but we’re sitting in a living room scene, which doesn’t really exist out here on the west coast. But on the east coast, we talk about organics and “better for you” and…. Um… can I swear?

GR: Haha yup!

A:But people would be like, “I don’t give a fuck! Fucking organic…” So we’re trying to tell people, “No, for certain things, like dairy, it makes sense to use better things, or local things.” Out there we use a local milk called Battenkill. All of these things we bring together, which is good. Both Bin and I are centrists on a lot of things.

GR: Why and how are you bridging culture between Asian Americans and Americans in general?

Bin: Our values are quality, transparency, and giving a damn. I think the transparency part is really critical and important to Boba Guys. There’s so many Chinese restaurants that we’ve been to, Andrew’s family had one, and there hasn’t really been a glimpse into how food is made, what’s the story behind the restaurant? We really didn’t know anything about the Chinese restaurants we were going to. So we wondered why are food companies built that way? At the time we were looking at what company to start, we were really taken away with Everlane because they had the same question with apparel, you know? Where did this shirt come from? Why does it cost $20? For us, we wanted to shine a light on our drinks for people. So when we wrote for Good Magazine, every week we would put out an article and share our challenges as entrepreneurs and how we make our milk tea. We put our recipes for our milk tea on our website. So much of that is built into our DNA. You do that in the beginning since it’s harder to do it later. We did it right from the get go because it held us to a higher standard. It’s better to over communicate; it’s better to tell people what’s in there.

A: As Bin said I grew up in the restaurant industry. My parents were immigrants. My dad’s from Hong Kong and my mom’s from Taiwan. My dad didn’t go to high school and they did what a lot of immigrants do without a degree, they started a restaurant. So I grew up — Oh, I shouldn’t say this because it’s probably illegal— making wontons, or cutting stuff since I was 7 years old.

Bin: That’s like every restaurant kid.

A: Yeah, I’m not the only restaurant brat out there. There’s a lot of us. Bin’s also an immigrant kid, so we have that work ethic, where we both get it: there’s a lot of dirty work, but I think we can do it. I knew with Bin I wasn’t going to be the only one doing work. With me, I knew Bin didn’t think I was going to cop out either. I think we were able to put effort in because of our upbringings. I grew up Jersey and Bin grew up in rural Wharton, Texas. I grew up in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and was one of two Asian families. You were the only one?

Bin: Yeah I was the only one:

A:Yeah, I grew up with baseball, and sports, before I learned how to study really hard. Same with him. When we met, we noticed we had the same view in life.  I’m a little tired of all the stereotypes. I’m tired how people think Asian people are shady, or we’re secretive, we’re “clique-y”, and we’re exclusive and we just stick together. And there is a little truth to that. But at the same time, I think there’s more to that.

I’m a little tired of all the stereotypes. I’m tired how people think Asian people are shady, or we’re secretive, we’re “clique-y”, and we’re exclusive and we just stick together. And there is a little truth to that. But at the same time, I think there’s more to that.

Bin and I had this take that you can’t just be one side and be totally homogenous like Panda Express, no offense. On the other side, you can’t be so ethnic or ultra-cultural that you are leaving people out.

Bin: Inaccessible.

A: Inaccessible- exactly. And so when we made Boba Guys we asked ourselves, “How do we find that balance?” When people look at Boba Guys people say, “ Oh, two Asian guys run it, so it’s legit Asian.” But our customers also get a very American side of it. People notice that Boba Guys does a lot of charity work, or we do community stuff, things that you would normally associate with Western companies, like Everlane. Transparency right? So when we started, we were very careful to bridge cultures. We always say our team, which is in our manual. We don’t blend cultures. Blending cultures is what people think should happen, which is when you take two cultures and you kind of put it all in one and you say that we create a whole new set of cultures. I don’t think it’s like that. Bridging cultures is saying, “Hey come to my world. Come to my culture. Come visit for awhile like a tourist. Let me show you what a Kaya toast is, or Hong Kong style milk tea, or Korean Fried Chicken. And then when you go back to a coffee shop you’re reminded that, “Hey that kind of reminds me of Boba Guys but with tea.”

We don’t blend cultures. Blending cultures is what people think should happen, which is when you take two cultures and you kind of put it all in one and you say that we create a whole new set of cultures. I don’t think it’s like that. Bridging cultures is saying, “Hey come to my world. Come to my culture. Come visit for awhile like a tourist. Let me show you what a Kaya toast is, or Hong Kong style milk tea, or Korean Fried Chicken. And then when you go back to a coffee shop you’re reminded that, “Hey that kind of reminds me of Boba Guys but with tea.”

When you put that all together, that’s our approach to culture. Culture, by the way, is our number one thing. Jeremy Lin was getting hot about the time when we were coming out with Boba Guys and we were like, “Oh no Asian is going to play NBA and go to Harvard.” But then we realized if Lin could bridge cultures in sports, I’m pretty sure food is going to be the same. At the time only David Chang was getting hot. Now there’s Eddie, and David, Eric Siew, all these great guys. But, with sports we started to see this shift with Jeremy. So that gave us the thought that Wow, I think people can respect us if we were in the heart of a tourist area. When people drink boba in Union Square, I like to say that you can do that, when a decade ago you couldn’t.

Bin: That’s culture facing towards the customer. I think within our team there’s a really strong culture that’s modeled after Patagonia. Patagonia’s whole thing is about sustainability. Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) said that he wanted to build a 100 year old company. So we wondered could that actually happen with a food business? In the food business you’re lucky if you survive the first 2 years. So, to even say to our employees we’re in it for 100 years, it really affects your decision making. It’s not aboutgoing after pure profits, or pick locations where we would have maximum foot traffic or this is the audience that’s going to give us a lot of money. A lot of people ask us, “Why aren’t you in areas with a ton of asians?” We didn’t want to create a for us, by us company. Of course we know Asians drink boba.

A: Whaaat

Bin: So if you come to our stores, you’ll see all walks, all ages, all ethnicities, and our employees reflect that too. I think that was the glue that binds us all together: we’re in it for the really long haul and it gives us clarity to not take short cuts.

A: That’s why we don’t franchise.

Bin: Yup.

A:That’s the number one business model of Asian run businesses: they franchise,

Bin: Especially boba shops.

A: Yeah. I mean there’s nothing wrong with franchising. Subway is one of the best franchises out there. But for us if we want to do culture and do it right, you can’t franchise. Franchising allows you to scale fast, but you can’t keep things tight. Culture fundamentally has to be tight, it has to be a family. You can’t franchise families. You have to be close knit. So far it’s worked out. We’ll see what happens when some big guy comes right after us, which may be happening soon. We’re seeing a lot more people trying to do our model now. That’s a whole separate topic though. We’re trying to figure out what the world would look like when on the surface level they look like Boba Guys, but the soul, which Bin and I like to say our company has a soul, is not Boba Guys. A soul outlives its body. So 100 year old company?

Bin: It’s not going to be us running it.

A:It’s not going to be us. Hopefully we might have our future CEO sitting in our team right now and we don’t even know. That would be so awesome If that were to happen, then we know we did our job right. I would be super proud of that person that they grew from scratch. That would be super cool. Sorry, I don’t know. Boba Talk we just keep on talking. Fu— We’re going to set this up to whoever is talking after us. You got to talk as much as we do.

GR: By the way, don’t be afraid to swear, this talk is unfiltered.A: Oh, I’ve been drawing a lot of F-bombs.

GR: Don’t worry man, our manifesto has “shit” in it”

A: Oh ok cool.

GR: Can you talk about the design? There’s no boba shop in the world that looks like your stores. Can you talk about your influence and what led to the aesthetic?

Bin: Andrew does more of the store buildouts. We get a lot of question about the logo. Hey is that an anteater? No, actually it's an Aardvark. But for us, we wanted to create a brand that felt inviting, welcoming, and a little exotic. I think that’s a perfect analogy for boba, especially when bringing it mainstream. For us, the aardvark really encapsulates what we’re about.

But for us, we wanted to create a brand that felt inviting, welcoming, and a little exotic. I think that’s a perfect analogy for boba, especially when bringing it mainstream. For us, the aardvark really encapsulates what we’re about.

Even the way it’s rendered. I could have made it more cutesy, but the way we did it: flat, wood block print style, and black and white, it gives a very classic look. I forgot that we wrote “Established 2011” even when we had our pop up—

A: That was a little ballsy.

Bin: But that was also because we truly believed, even as a pop up, that we would become a 100 year old company. So we decided to put it on the logo.

A: Oh that’s right? So when it's 2111

Bin:Yeah, when that 0 turns into a 1 in all the stores, then you know—

A: We made our dream.

Bin: But Andrew can talk about all the store build outs, since he does a lot of design.

A: In this case I'm more of like just echoing Bin. When Bin designed the logo, he also designed the look and feel of the menu. When I build a store, I think about transparency a lot more. So we have white and glass almost everywhere and the glass is not plastic fiber glass so you can see into our kitchen. Even if it's transparent you got to know its quality. From every material like this coaster. It's real wood. People steal them though which sucks but these are $30 coasters. Everything we do is about quality, transparency, and giving a damn. We choose everything. No store has the same coasters; we don't buy the same coasters at every store. We don't buy the same stuff because we try to make it very unique. These books at our store are all our favorite books. And these are all the books that...

bobaguys-2.jpg

A: And these are all the books that influenced us from you know Deukis book, Yvon Chouinard, this is the book we're talking about from Patagonia. It's our favorite book. Just everything we do is about quality, transparency gives the stores this look. If I were to say it, Bin created a canvas of timelessness, of classic. I just interpreted it as white/wood Scandinavian and Japanese and it's kind of minimalist which is how we ended up where we are.

GR: What was the biggest high and biggest low?

Bin: Definitely know the low. What's the high though? I would say that low, definitely not ton of people know it. But for us, Boba Guys almost didn't happen. That was the low.

Boba Guys has never been about the money. You do a pop up, it's not about the money because you know, for those that don't know, you have to cut in the people that are hosting you. You're buying things with retail. We were going to the supermarket to buy things full price. We weren't paying ourselves for the first couple of years. It was definitely just a passion for us. And so you know we're pretty accomplished in our careers. I think we can say that now. We've been in the corporate world over a decade and we've made a name for ourselves. You know we were at an age where you either start to go after director or VP roles. You expect to climb higher up the corporate ladder. Or you take the leap and become an entrepreneur. So that really was a really tough decision. It's not easy for anyone to make. And I think specifically I think really tough for Asian Americans to make. So it was really really really difficult. And you know our family was like, “what are you guys doing?” At the time, he's finishing up his MBA at Berkeley. So you go to one of the best business schools to start a boba shop, so that's pretty insane. For me I'm a creative so I'll do this, do that. It's really not a big deal.

A: I mean maybe I didn't need to echo. He gave up a lot.

Bin: But to finish that story it was just, we kind of grapple with it a lot. And so there was a time where he was like in the winter time we've done the pop up for a couple of months because we weren't sure. Like hey, is this just going to be our life for the next foreseeable future? And that was a tough decision and over winter break. We're going to fold the pop up, and we'll see when we come back. We're going to close the pop up down a lot of people were sad. So a month or two pass, and we kept getting emails, “when you guys coming back?” and we made the decision to go to both feet in. We made the decision together. We haven't looked back. It's five years strong now. That's definitely the low point. It almost didn't happen. What's the high?

A: I honestly almost every day gets better. Super cheesy.

Bin: One high I can think about is, us opening, it's easy to win on your home court. Like in San Francisco, we open our new store, people are excited, but we get that because we have seen it for a while. But everyone thought we'd would go to LA after SF, it’s closer, there's a huge audience that. We told everyone we're doing New York, they kind of look at us a little bit crazy, because a) you guys aren't there, b) there isn't as big of an audience in term of high end boba as LA is. You have to make so many things from scratch from employees to the stores to the following, no one knows your brand.

A: They don't know the word. They call it bubble tea. You know East Coast. They're like what is boba, doesn't boba mean boobs.

GR: That's the biggest beef I have with the east coast, because I went to school there right? Can you explain to our viewers the difference between milk tea with boba and bubble tea.

A: There's different levels of that. So on the whole, boba can be the ball. Some people call the tapioca pearls boba. But now people nowadays say, let's grab boba as the whole drink. But the whole drink, boba, some people also call it bubble tea. So the east coast and Canada they'll say bubble tea and they'll say out here in California primarily we call it boba. And boba in Mandarin, it also means women's breasts. So. That's a whole different story because my mom at least said she said "why are you calling stuff like boob guys," essentially breast guys, I was like well, true. And also, we just didn't know. I mean honestly that was Taiwanese slang back then. So that the main difference. And then when people call it now it's really based on you know, boba milk tea, pearl milk tea, what else they call it, tapioca with pearls. milk tea with pearls, all those derivatives are really just different forms. In Asia they call it Zhenzhou pearls, so then that's how you get the pearl milk tea here. derivatives are really just a lot of corners. So then that's how you get the pearl milk tea out here. But generally boba, we say short explanation is boba. West Coast. East Coast. We'll see. And that guy sounds lame. So on top of that we would never dare even to come up to New Jersey.

Bin: To finish his story though, a lot of people are in our ears. Why are you going to New York, like this sounds insane. You have a sure bet with all these other places, just continue and just grow in SF, because we had only two stores. We're working on the third store at the time. We didn't have that many SF stores and we made the leap to NY, and it wasn't until our first first pop up, we saw lines two or three NY blocks, they are really long, we had huge huge lines at our pop up and we were like, oh my God. And I think that was huge high for me.

A: I mean the second pop up was huge. I'll give you guys a Giant Robot exclusive. New York, that high caused probably the second lowest low we've gotten. Which was, we had to turn down VC money. We were given essentially two million dollars, just under two million dollars to essentially series A from a very reputable firm. The boba shop would have probably been on the front page of TechCrunch. I'm pretty sure, because it's the venture capital firm is a great one. We just disagreed on New York and thankfully it's fell through literally on the 11th hour. We had all the bank wiring info, we had everything, and we were on the fence. But really the last straw was, New York, the pop ups were doing so well. I was about ready to fly out to another pop up, say all right once I come back, all the wiring info, and our account will have two million dollars. But what happened was, without getting into it we just didn't agree on the vision. And that's really what made us question our DNA. And so the deal died on the operating table. It was sad. I'll just say it ended with somebody walking out on us on a meeting. It never happened to me in my corporate career, and I don't want this to happen to you. Somebody literally, not us just got up, and I'm like, you just don't do that. And so you know, we learned a lot about real life and it really put our values in check. And so when we look at New York now it's extra special because we obviously didn't take money. So thankfully we're now like. Way more worldly. But it was hard because that 2 million would have been so easy. You know it made us even more frugal although we're pretty frugal ourselves right now. But that 2 million would have been nice but it was not worth it. So word to the entrepreneurs. If your values driven. Make sure you test your values.

And I think a lot of people say they're values driven but they don't really truly test. I think you got to find real moments or key decision points where you're able to say. I had a really hard decision and there was a fork in the road and I chose my direction based on values not opportunity, money, fame, status. It's why every day we turn down franchises, like even international franchises. It's would be so easy, people come to us, Japan, Korea the other day. Legit places that do Starbucks and all these places overseas, they're like we'll put a Boba Guys now because you guys are like the hottest one in the United States and we're like. No. Yeah that's probably another five million in our bank, but it's about culture, it's about values. We'll get there if we were building a 100-year-old company, we'll get there. We don't need fast money to get us there. Caffeine is kicking in, it means I'm getting more passionate.

GR: A closing question, you make your own boba. Are you inspired by what they were doing? What's your top five food list?

A: Does it have to be Boba or can it be drinks? Our favorite boba shop is Wonderful Foods still.

Bin: I think our favorite boba shop is we've always said openly is Wonderful Foods. This is what actually what got me back into boba because I didn't drink it for years.

A: That's here in San Francisco. It's like one of the oldest if not the oldest San Francisco boba shop. Yeah.

Bin: Never franchised.

A: They use creamer. It's not like we're anti creamer. You get what you pay for, but it was good. We used to drive all the way across the city just to get it.

Bin: So it's like boba as a category we always had love for it.

A: AndTen Rendown south,Half and Half. I think when we started there wasn't a ton of places using their real milk brewing their own teas, even the ones that did, didn't do it across the board.

Bin: You'll get you get like a winter watermelon and it be made out of powder.

A: Or fresh milk tea and it would be like Costco milk. Nowadays people are like organic milk, I don't want name the brand but you buy online milk. Organic milk online. But it's so pasteurized. You basically lose all meaning. That's where you know this is an Asian-American forum. So I'm just going to be straight up. When I say that I don't want a backlash.

So make sure you don't cut it. Just on my quote. Like Asian people. Stop with the fucking shortcuts. Stop short cutting everything. I don't get it. Use the same energy that you use to get straight A's. And when you apply to a business, you guys have short cuts for some reason. It doesn't make sense to me.

Like Asian people. Stop with the fucking shortcuts. Stop short cutting everything. I don't get it. Use the same energy that you use to get straight A's. And when you apply to a business, you guys have short cuts for some reason. It doesn't make sense to me.

So when people saw that we were doing organic milk. So the point is when people were doing or were doing organic milk, we saw these copycats. It's OK to copy us, but they're like, oh just organic milk and you're trying to tell consumers, oh it's organic milk, that's OK. But it's a ultra pasteurized and it's coming from Amazon. You could see the packages in their store and you're like, then that defeats the whole purpose. Good, true organic milk is local. It's with the nutrients. If you're going to go dairy you might as well go with the best. I never get that. If you could tell all future Asian-Americans and I know other, you know the Fung brothers or Eddie. We all kind of say the same thing. Don't discount your culture, don't discount your food. I think it's true we're on the same boat. I just think it gives Asian Americans a bad name to constantly cheat everything or copy everything. Alright let the hate comments come. Just them them to me don't send them to Bin.

Bin: Let's put everyone on blast. Drop the mic and I'm gone.

A: I put you in an awkward spot.

GR: It's true. I mean one thing you constantly see on Yelp reviews on Asian places is people telling consumers that, “Hey the food here is really good, but just ignore the bad service.” I mean, why is that? Why can’t it just be a place with good food and good service?

Bin:And his point is also like I don't know what it is about.

A: Are we going to talk about Asians then?

Bin: It's the same thing like you see like, we've been in boba for a really long time, five years and we're not the first, many people ahead of us. But you see it happen in a lot of different food categories where it gets really hot like one of them is poke. Hawaii has been doing it a really long time and the trend caught on and then everyone jumps in. You saw it with cupcakes, you saw it with all these things where people that didn't want to start small business, jumped on it because they're like, this is a way to make easy money, and it's also why most of them fall too. I would just caution a lot of entrepreneurs or people who want to start small businesses, it's so much work behind it to be successful. I think it's the energy. You go jumping on a trend or just copying or finding the next best thing and not really trying, is really not worth it. It's so much work.

A: I mean this is I guess is more like Asian-American like culture talk. But I think there's something latent behind that too. Part of the reason why I think Eddie Huang said this too, but so I'm stealing a little bit from him. The other thing is Asians don't attribute to other Asians. Nobody ever says we're the original. I'm just saying, give us a little bit of credit, just a little bit.

Bin: You don't have to kiss the ring.

A: Exactly yeah. I'm thinking this from Eddie. He's awesome by the way and his books is right there. His book inspired us too. Or both of them. Is that. When you're discounting.

Like what they say about Boba Guys or our friendsat Mission Chinese or what they said about David Chang or Deuki even, who is the chef on Sunday Bird that we're working with right now. The Asians are like. Well then it's not worth it. It's not the non Asians discounting us, it's Asians discounting ourselves. And not discounting. I actually think it's ripping them down and drag them down and ripping apart. Bin and I. I'm pretty sure get... we've been a little more vocal now. But. The first three or four years we probably got the most haterism emails of the Mission Chinese probably, than anybody I've seen. And I'll show people the emails and they wouldn't believe the e-mails, “you're fucking like, you con artists." How are we be con artists? We're the most transparent company. We're not con artists, that's one thing, I just it blows my mind that people would call us that, or you're sell sell-outs or something. And I'm like. Why you hating? We're trying to bring boba to the culture. We're not saying Boba Guys is the original, the traditional, milk tea, we don't say that. We don't say like just like the taste of Taiwan. We don't say any of that. We literally are saying our mission is to bridge cultures. Look at our stores. We tried to make it accessible to everybody. And why are you hating so much. And that happens just with you know Mission Chinese, Momofuku, all these guys. Bauhaus like. But yeah. Kogi right. And so if I say something to the Asian American community and this could be the caffeine talking. Or just my fire talking. I just think that we do a lot better if we all just like, gave ourselves A’s. Sounds cheesy but just realize that. Hey like we're OK because I think a lot of is coming from this chip on the shoulder. And so you have this chip. So you try to tear other people down. For us, even if we don't think a boba shop does it the right way. Bin and I never ever tear a specific boba shop down ever. The reason is we named our favorite boba shops and they're not even our type of style. They are like old school powder creamer style. And we'll still go there. And people are surprised because we wear our gear and we're wearing Boba Guys shirts and we walk into a boba shop and they're like, is that really one of the boba guys? I'm like yeah what's wrong with it? We just try to bridge cultures. It's really it.

bobaguys-4-copy.jpg

Bin: Yeah. I think you're so right. Attribution is not a thing in Asian culture. If you watch any of our interviews, we always say Patagonia, we always say we'd like to be the next Philz, we always say we look up to Buy Rite, Blue Bottle. I think that's a real shame. you're so right, I don't see that very often. Even Mission Chinese they always say Spices. I don't know what it is about that.

I think it's because I mean we're all like pretty good students, like you think it's in the academic student’s mentality, you do it on your own. And you kind of take that mindset over when you go into the real world. Where I think you and I, and I like to say the people we talked about today, the ones we look up to. None of us ever think we've made on our own.

Bin: Ideas are not formed in a vacuum it's based on your experiences, based on your travel, based on how you grew up. I think it's a disservice to not pay your dues and not really tell people when you get inspired, because it came from somewhere. It is important to attribute because we've stood on the shoulders of giants. Even if it's not our category of boba, coffee pushed it forward to make a premium drink before it applied to boba.

Ideas are not formed in a vacuum it's based on your experiences, based on your travel, based on how you grew up. I think it's a disservice to not pay your dues and not really tell people when you get inspired, because it came from somewhere. It is important to attribute because we've stood on the shoulders of giants. Even if it's not our category of boba, coffee pushed it forward to make a premium drink before it applied to boba.

 

A: People always ask us where did you get your inspiration. We don't look at the boba industry. I would hope most people see the boba world, we’re one of, in the US, one of the top main envelope pushers.

Bin: We're the top. I'm going to say it.

A: But we don't get credit for that right. I mean it's like Vogue or whatever but Asians or copy cats are like, oh they are so great.

Bin: Whole copy lifted.

A: Somebody, we won't say who, literally copied our copy, our writing, and it's on their website. And we're like, that looks familiar. What is going on here. Just give a little bit of credit. You know because we talk about ice cream shops too. We look atBi-Rite,Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous,Ici in Berkeley, Salt and Straw. We give credit to everybody who's inspired us. And I think maybe that's the takeaway. Like I think Asians need to give their personal self an A, so that they can start giving other people A's.

GR: On Instagram, you are very vocal about entrepreneurship and give people advice constantly.  What’s interesting about your instagram story is that you break every posting rule. You should maybe post three things a day, and mostly about food. But you guys post everything, from food, to talking about the story, advice, etc. What was the coolest messages you got from a fan or someone that came into the store and you realized, “Wow, our story is not just selling boba, it’s more!”

A: You guys are watching these stories. That's awesome thanks.

Bin: It all rolls into transparency. One of our values is transparency. You got to tell it all. It's not always great, it's is a two-way street. Andrew’s got more energy in replying. He's tireless. We're trying to change the way people think about boba. For the longest time, it was very secretive. It was all franchises. There wasn't a lot of innovation. So. We're starting to trend and there's many places. There's places in L.A. like Alberts that are doing awesome.

A:Josh and Jordan, yeah.

Bin:T Bar in Portland.

A:Erica.

Bin: Yeah you know them well and they came to us with advice. We're happy to talk to guys and get inspiration from, and we support them right back. Oversharing and just giving giving giving back. So now we're seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs. This one is the best example that we’ve done. We started the pop up shop inside of a ramen restaurant and now we're hosting a potluck with Deuki Hong, for those that don't know, he's one of the hottest Korean chefs.

We hope that in the future more small business are built this way, getting into it for the right reasons, doing the right thing, not taking any shortcuts and ideally everyone's better.

A: You do got to break the rules. We don't break the rules just for sake of breaking it, and I think the other thing too, most people who are entrepreneurs are like, “well I'm an entrepreneur I do what I want, say what I want. Fuck everybody.” That's not the case either. Bin and I. The fact that we lasted each over a decade in corporate America pretty successfully was because we knew when we listen and when to speak up. And so we're definitely not, “my way or the highway,” so if for example we do kind of like have these really long format Instagram stories, if nobody replied, and the viewership always just went down and down. Then yeah I probably would have been like, ugh I guess nobody watches and it's happened. I used to do Tuesday Tea Time. Nobody liked too much of the Tuesday Tea Time. Sadly, not everybody cared that there was an Iron Goddess Tie Guan Yin (鐵觀音, a premium organic oolong tea) from this mountain. I guess it's not the Boba Guys crowd. So I was like Ok I can' t make strawberry matchas every day. So. I could kill that segment. And so we kind of messed up and we kind of are pretty open about it. I'm just getting into like Asian dad mode. I feel like the Asian Phil Dunphy or something. So like it's like saying, if I were to say the younger generation especially Giant Robot because you have a younger crowd.

And so we kind of messed up and we kind of are pretty open about it. I'm just getting into like Asian dad mode. I feel like the Asian Phil Dunphy or something. So like it's like saying, if I were to say the younger generation especially Giant Robot because you have a younger crowd.

 

I think people care too much about face, and I think social media is stereotypical because you know Asian culture and face and all that stuff. But especially with social media there's just a facade you've got to put on. And most people know Bin and I, I was essentially like a director level and brand management. And Bin was a creative director, so we can build hundred million dollar creative companies. It's what we did for a living. If you look at our Instagram not every picture is perfect, not every Instagram story is perfect because most people know, we choose to do it and we choose not to because it was overly manufactured. It's not real. It's disingenuous. So but every once in awhile it means that, we over crop something or I cut myself off on my talking or you know, like I look stupid or I look like an idiot and my wife tells me the same thing, like you look kind of dumb in that one, and I'm like oh. I guess that's life on the Internet. But that's getting rid of the age, shedding the Asian mentality of needing to save face. I think that's a big obstacle I think for a lot of Asian-Americans where, you know what Alan Yang said when he won the Emmy with Aziz from Master of None. It's like instead of a violin. Give your child a camera. When Bin and I quit, it was a big deal for a good MBA student who did venture capital in business school to choose a boba shop or a creative director with a well-known blog to do a boba shop. You know that's not all about saving face or that kind of stuff. It's just life is too short.

Bin: I knew you would say that too. Really. It's true.

A: Sorry. I went on a little did we get philosophical when I drink boba too much.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row content_placement="middle" css=".vc_custom_1488997423050{background-color: #f33535 !important;background-position: center !important;background-repeat: no-repeat !important;background-size: cover !important;}"][vc_column][vc_separator][vc_column_text]


Boba Guys' Role Models

Everlane

Facebook

Patagonia

Timbuk2


 

Boba Guys

Visit at www.bobaguys.com

The interview took place at their Fillmore location in San Francisco, CA.

Address: 1522 Fillmore St, San Francisco, CA 94115

(Lines are long, but the boba is delicious.  Great place to hang and study.)

The music in the trailer is Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1.

Played by George Ko, CEO of Giant Robot Media