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East Asian bubble tea franchises invade Vancouver

Over the past two years, a number of large East Asian bubble tea franchises have set-up shop in the Lower Mainland.

New overseas chains and local enterprises make Vancouver a bubble tea boomtown. Diana Chan enjoys an oolong milk tea with pearls from Rad.

Christopher Cheung / Metro

New overseas chains and local enterprises make Vancouver a bubble tea boomtown. Diana Chan enjoys an oolong milk tea with pearls from Rad.

The bubble tea invasion is upon Vancouver!

The Taiwanese drink invented in the 1980s had already reached our shores by the early 1990s, but mom-and-pops, not chains from the bubble tea motherland, served it to curious locals and those with roots overseas who craved the treat.

But now the bubble tea giants have come. East Asian franchises started opening shops in Vancouver about two years ago – Chatime, CoCo, Gongcha, ShareTea, TTOB, Happy Lemon, Comebuy, among others – and the list is growing.

The market hasn’t oversaturated yet; most chains boast unique specialties. Fancy cream cheese on your tea? Bubble tea gelato? Aloe vera with your lemon slushy? Or how about another plant topping, jellies made of amorphophallus konjac? These overseas favourites are now here.

Metro Vancouver’s East Asian population also helps fuel the bubble tea renaissance in this boomtown.

One entrepreneur launched a chain here because his thirst for good bubble tea was left unquenched.

Kai Liu from Shandong, China left home in 1999 to study electrical engineering at the University of Alberta. If you ask Liu whether Albertan bubble tea makes the cut…

“No, no, no!”

Even after he graduated and worked as an engineer, opening a bubble tea shop was on his mind. So Liu looked into bringing over a franchise from Asia.

“I did a lot of research. There are so many brands. I even went to Taiwan, the States and China to check them out myself.”

In the end, he settled on CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, a Taiwanese chain founded in 1997 now with over 2,000 locations. Liu approached the company with a business plan; CoCo was happy, and gave him the franchise rights in Vancouver and Burnaby. Franchise bubble tea from Asia had already hit cities in Ontario and California, but not Metro Vancouver.

So after a decade working in engineering, Liu opened his first bubble tea shop in Joyce-Collingwood in 2016. CoCo was among the first of Vancouver’s franchises.

“It’s a lot of competition,” said food blogger Diana Chan of Foodology, “but it’s giving people more flavours, more toppings and better quality.” Drink crystal concoctions are becoming a thing of the past.

Even with the arrival of chains, there’s still room in the Vancouver market for local bubble tea brewers. Downtown’s Rad, food truck Teapressu and Café Eggstatic in Crystal Mall are edging into this crowded scene, and longtime favourites like Soho have experimented with twists like spiked bubble tea.

If you’re new to the drink, bubble tea is more than just the classic milk tea with tapioca pearls. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses all the drinks you can find at a bubble tea shop. So drinking “bubble tea” could mean drinking tea without the eponymous bubbles. Bubble tea can also mean coffees, fruit smoothies and yogurt sodas.

“It’s very casual,” said Chan. “It’s not pretentious. You don’t get bubble snobs like you get coffee snobs.”

Liu would agree; bubble tea is a ubiquitous, everyday East Asian pastime.

“My friends and I prefer bubble tea to coffee,” he said. “And I don’t drink alcohol, so the top places we’d go to are bubble tea shops.”

Liu’s favourite at CoCo? Three Guys: black milk tea with tapioca, pudding and grass jelly. CoCo has a computerized tea brewer that makes sure it tastes the same every time.

He has a confession, but you might not be surprised.

“I drink bubble tea daily!”

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