An aardvark hasn’t been this popular since Marc Brown debuted the Arthur book series in 1976. That iconic animal was known for many things, but can’t compete with the Boba Guys version, a spirit animal that has a “built-in straw” and first appeared in LA just a few weeks ago in April, but already serves some of the city’s best boba drinks.
Business partners Bin Chen and Andrew Chau run ten locations between San Francisco and New York City. Their first LA shop at Culver City’s trendy PLATFORM complex makes it 11. They don’t have a sign, but instantly drew long lines for drinks like Hong Kong milk tea and their signature multi-layered strawberry matcha latte.
Boba Guys specialize in tea drinks, though they also brew coffee beans from Brooklyn-based Parlor Coffee. They’ve managed to avoid many boba pitfalls. Boba Guys avoid powders and non-dairy creamers. Instead, they steep loose-leaf tea, use real fruit, and offer a choice of premium milks: organic Straus Family Creamery cow’s milk, Califia Farms almond milk, and Oatly oat milk. Boba Guys continuously boil tapioca balls so their boba stays soft and chewy. They also make brown sugar syrup, almond jelly, and grass jelly in-house. Bonus: customers can customize the sweetness level on most drinks, or skip sugar syrup entirely.
Chen and Chau became friends while working at messenger bag company Timbuk2 in San Francisco’s Mission District. The two boba fiends had to take tapioca matters into their own hands after their favorite neighborhood shop closed. The duo developed a recipe they liked so much that they hosted a pop-up starting in 2011 at Ken Ken Ramen. Two years later, they opened their first shop in the Mission.
Chen acknowledges that Los Angeles was hardly hurting for good boba before their arrival. “There are so many great places in LA already,” he says, singling out companies like 7 Leaves Café. “We don’t expect to shake things up, we just add our own twist to the boba world.”
For Boba Guys, that means considering more than just the product. Other places use high-end ingredients in their boba at this point, though they were certainly one of the first. “It’s no longer this sweet dessert drink for kids,” Chen says. “It’s bringing it to the mainstream and people that might not try boba. It hasn’t been presented in a way that’s so approachable. Our whole mission is to bridge cultures.”
“We compete with coffee and juices more than we do with boba,” he says. “People are consuming boba is more like a coffee replacement. If we disrupt anything, it won’t be the boba industry — it will be the coffee industry.”
“Our branding is kind of a reaction to what people might expect from boba,” Chen says. “Generally it was regarded as mom and pop street food style cheap drink. We’ve elevated it, not just with the ingredients, but also the stores themselves and the experience. We’re inspired by a lot of Japanese design or Scandinavian design. If the store looks better and employees are happy, the experience is better.” Social media also plays into this plan, helping to broadcast their aesthetic and vibe.
Just like with their timeless aardvark logo, Chen wants Boba Guys to be “approachable and friendly and memorable.” The duo constantly refines their menu to make it easier to comprehend. Chen says, “A lot of time, it’s first timers who don’t know what to order or how to order.” They streamlined their menu for Culver City customers, cutting drinks and rotating seasonal items into spring/summer and fall/winter releases, like in the fashion world.
Chen also credits company culture as a key to Boba Guys’s success. When he and Chau worked at Timbuk2, the company offered catered lunches and organized team outings that built bonds. At Boba Guys, they regularly buy big blocks of movie tickets and take team members go-carting, on canoe trips, to dinners, and Disneyland. They also host 4M meetings every other Monday.
These Monday Morning Managers Meetings are two-hour paid sessions where managers make presentations and receive management coaching. Chen is convinced these efforts are worth the investment, saying, “We’ve got a lot of young, emerging leaders. A lot of people think this is a quick stop, but end up figuring out this is what they want.”
As far as LA goes, Boba Guys have already signed on to become the house café at Rideback Ranch, a Historic Filipinotown studio from Dan Lin, who produces the LEGO® movies, among other features and TV shows. Taipei-born Lin bypassed a predictable coffee bar so his team could be powered by boba. He’s supported Boba Guys for years, has been a mentor to Chen and Chau, and offering them the chance to open on his company’s campus in 2018.
Chen and Chau are also partners with Deuki Hong in fried chicken-focused Sunday Bird and Sunday at the Museum inside San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. They recently acquired Wooly’s Shaved Snow, a brand that’s currently limited to Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, but could easily expand it to the West Coast. The duo’s lasting impact on Los Angeles is far from clear or complete, but they’re already generating buzz in Culver City.
8820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, www.bobaguys.com
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