Few people in the U.S. had ever heard of bubble tea when Kristen Lee opened Cha for Tea at University Center in 1999.
Lee’s sister Alison, then a student at UC Irvine, suggested that the Taiwanese drink – sweetened iced tea mixed with milk and chewy tapioca pearls – would be a hit with college students.
“So we tried it, and the University Center store has been pretty crazy since day one,” Lee says.
Today, bubble tea, also called boba tea, is a $2 billion global market with retail shops throughout the U.S. offering the refreshing treat.
“We definitely introduced it to a more mainstream market,” Lee says. “In 1999, bubble tea was
popular in Taiwan, but not a lot of stores in the U.S. were selling it.”
Introducing the beverage to an Americanized palate required patience and training.
“We had to explain what bubble tea was, and since the tapioca pearls are black, some people were afraid to drink it.”
Lee and her partner, Eric Dang, originally used martini shakers to mix Cha’s tea, but as demand increased, they incorporated electric blenders. They also use a water purification system that filters out impurities and adds minerals.
“We are one of the few that have water standards to brew the tea,” Lee says. “It’s almost like the Chinese traditional way.”
Cha for Tea has cultivated such a dedicated following, it opened a second Irvine shop, in Woodbridge Village Plaza. Both serve favorites such as almond milk tea with custard-like pudding.