Choose your own adventure: Bubble tea shops popping up across the suburbs
Bubble tea or boba tea, named for the small tapioca balls at the bottom of the drink, was first popularized in Taiwan in the 1980s. In recent years, the drink has expanded its reach throughout the Chicago area, with numerous dedicated businesses popping up to serve the highly customizable beverage alongside other drinks and snacks.
"It has gotten a lot more popular," said Tim Bao, co-owner of Bobar in Elk Grove Village. "Our drinks are good. We have a lot of return customers who come from a lot further away."
Most bubble tea shops offer a wide variety of flavors, textures and temperatures. You can get traditional teas, like oolong or green tea, hot or iced or try the boba as part of a fruit smoothie or a milk tea, which combines one of those teas with powdered milk. Bobar offers 20 flavors of fruit tea such as watermelon and strawberry, plus 20 toppings including brown sugar boba and mango jelly.
"Our menu has a lot more selection than you would find elsewhere, and there are a lot of combinations where you can choose your own," Bao said.
Bobar opened 2½ years ago, and since then Bao said he's seen many more places open in the area. The business is driven by both independent operators and major chains such as Kung Fu Tea, which operates around the world and has a location in Rolling Meadows and is adding a Westmont shop soon. Some fall in between like Chill Bubble Tea, which has six shops at malls around the Chicago area including Yorktown Center in Lombard, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg and Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills.
Patricia Wadas, manager of GraviTea in Schaumburg, attributes the popularity in part to social media because the drinks are so photogenic.
"We can make it look cool," she said. "We add different bobas and flavors and photograph it against our green grass wall."
Bao acknowledges that social media might get customers in the door, but it's the taste of bubble tea that brings them back. Bobar's staff is trained for nearly a month to help guide customers who have never tried the drink before so they can make a choice they'll like.
"They have so many questions," Bao said. "It's like if you went to Starbucks for the first time in your life."
The drinks have become so popular in the area that it's created supply issues.
"We used to have a lot of tapioca, the traditional black balls that people get in their drinks," Wadas said. "Now there's a shortage. We have to get it from different companies sometimes. We have to reach out to different businesses."
Facing growing competition, the tea shops have also distinguished themselves by offering other drinks and snacks. GraviTea began carrying Dippin' Dots last year after Wadas suggested serving the novelty ice cream most commonly found at theme parks like Six Flags. Bobar carries hot chocolate, lattes and bubble waffles -- a Hong Kong street food also known as egg waffles that can be flavored with matcha green tea or folded into a sort of ice cream cone. The snack is also gaining popularity in the United States through other bubble tea spots like Tealicious Bubble in Evanston.
"We like to give our customers a variety," Bao said. "We like to be different."
Bobar carries dessert smoothies like tiramisu and Oreo cheesecake to satisfy any sweet tooth, but Bao likes to guide customers to order something new.
"At the end of the day you just have to try it," Bao said. "People will ask questions like 'what does a lychee taste like?' They have to trust that it's not on our menu if it's not good. If you don't like it, there are other flavors you can try next time."