Six businesses compete for student’s attention
Bubble tea, a drink of Taiwanese origin, has made significant inroads with young Americans in recent years. Bubble tea vendors in Portland are betting their businesses on boba-hungry Portland State students—but is there enough demand to sustain the quantity of bubble tea available on PSU campus?
As of March 2020, six businesses on PSU campus serve bubble tea: Best Baguette, Bubble N Tea, Chit Chat Cafe, Ding Tea, Jong Can and Little Bear Coffee and Milk Tea.
Bubble tea places tend to open near college campuses, where international student populations can serve as a gateway to a larger market. The thinking is “Asian students will introduce the culture to their non-Asian friends—and it works,” Derrick Fang of Ten Ren Tea told The New York Times in 2017.
Not all students are open to the experience. “I’m indifferent about [bubble tea]…because the tapioca becomes overwhelming when there’s a lot of it,” PSU student Olivia McBride said.
Invented in the 1990s in Taiwan when a tea vendor allegedly poured tapioca pudding balls into their tea and found the sensory experience pleasant, bubble tea has taken a foothold in the American beverage industry in recent years, especially among millennials. Bubble tea is incredibly customizable and, like coffee, can be served hot or cold with a range of sweetness. This makes it marketable to a broad range of consumers. But what distinguishes it from other tea or coffee beverages is the tapioca pearls.
“Bubble N Tea is my favorite on campus right now, because the beverages are short, stout and sweet, like me.” – Madi Alexander
Tapioca pearls—also referred to as boba, another name for the beverage itself—about the size of frozen peas are boiled until soft and chewy and then soaked in a sugar syrup, which gives bubble tea its distinctive sweetness. The boba pearls sit in the bottom of the plastic cup and are sucked up through a fat straw that is punctured through the plastic film lid of the cup. Other toppings available at many boba places include fruit jelly, red bean and milk foam.
One of the oldest bubble tea locations on PSU campus is Chit Chat Cafe, on the corner of 6th and SW Hall. Chit Chat opened in 2005, but current owners Alex Cheng and family took over two years later in 2007. Before taking over the cafe from another family of Taiwanese immigrants, the family operated a small store in the Pearl District near the downtown Portland post office.
“The tapioca becomes overwhelming…”
“My wife wanted a store where we could do bubble tea, coffee, bagels, maybe some Taiwanese food…so we moved [across town],” said Alex Cheng. At the time, Chit Chat Cafe was one of the only places on PSU campus serving bubble tea, but the market has shifted significantly in the 15 years since the family took over the space. Cheng expressed confidence about the future of the business regardless.
“Recently, because we offer traditional Taiwanese food and improved our bubble tea ingredients, I think we’re doing well. We have confidence that we can beat any other bubble tea store in the area.”
Several months ago, Chit Chat shifted from using powdered teas and flavorings to using fresh brewed leaf teas. Cheng admits that the shift was due to market forces.
“Now, most bubble tea places do it this way. If we don’t change, the customer can tell the difference.”
As one of the most established bubble tea places on campus, Chit Chat has loyal supporters in the student body.
“I like Chit Chat because they have a lot more flavors to choose from than most places,” PSU student Ally Kelly said.
Students also expressed concern about Chit Chat’s future on PSU campus.
“I like Chit Chat because it’s the place I’ve heard the most about,” PSU student Cassidy Moore said. “Some friends also told me that the newer, fancier places are starting to run it out of business. [I’m] just trying to support small mom-and-pop shops.”
Despite this, new bubble tea locations on PSU campus have appeared rapidly in recent months. The newest opening is Ding Tea on SW College, the first Ding Tea franchise to open in downtown Portland.
Ding Tea is a Taiwanese franchise with over a thousand locations globally and over a hundred in the United States. It licenses its brand and recipes to individual franchises. Ding Tea shops are known for their golden boba, special toppings like crystal boba, cheese foam and for using cocktail shakers to pre-shake the boba before serving it to the customer.
“I’m just trying to support small mom-and-pop shops”
The franchise location was opened by Brian Jiang and his wife, both of whom are PSU alums. Jiang attended PSU in the class of 2005 and studied business.
“During those school years I just wanted a good bubble tea but all the ones around campus used powders, they weren’t even really tea.”
After graduating from PSU, Jiang worked in banking in Portland for 12 years. Frustrated by the long hours of his job, Jiang and his wife began scouting locations for a potential bubble tea franchise. When the space on SW College opened last year, the family took the leap.
“We were very lucky to find this location after a year,” Jiang said, “so I quit my job, cashed out my 401k and here we are.”
One block east of Ding Tea resides the bubble tea capital of PSU campus. Bubble N Tea, Jong Can and Chit Chat all reside on one block in the center of PSU, sharing the plot with Cheerful Tortoise, Thai Spice Kitchen and Hot Lips Pizza.
Bubble N Tea is the newest tenant of the three bubble tea vendors on the block. With one other location in Beaverton, frequently rated among the best bubble tea in the area, Bubble N Tea’s product is distinguished from other bubble teas by its cups and its relatively limited selection. Regardless of which of the six milk tea flavors a customer orders, it comes in a massive, squat cup that takes two hands to hold. The cups, along with their limited selections, make Bubble N Tea one of the most distinctive bubble tea options on campus.
Other bubble tea vendors distinguish themselves through venue. Little Bear Coffee and Milk Tea is a food cart operating out of the popular 4th and Hall food cart row, and the only bubble tea vendor on PSU campus serving out of a cart. Little Bear’s position alongside other food carts across from the PSU engineering building makes it a popular choice for students in between classes.
Not all students form strong opinions on particular bubble tea locations. “‘I don’t have a specific place,” PSU student Aakanksha Rane said. “None of them stand out to me. It feels like the same product in different packaging.”
Nevertheless, boba vendors on campus are at odds to distinguish their product and attract PSU students to the squishy, slimy tapioca balls that form the basis of their empire.
Vanguard editors tried original milk tea with tapioca from all six locations on campus. They evaluated the boba based on individual preference towards tea flavor, sweetness and boba texture. Participating editors ranked each drink out of 10. The scores reflect the individual preferences of Vanguard staff and are not an endorsement of any particular establishment.