Rumors of a boba shortage emerged last week when multiple media outlets reported on an Instagram post from Boba Guys claiming that an industry-wide scarcity of tapioca balls was imminent. But is that really true? And if so, how bad could it get?
While Boba Guys, which also operates the U.S. Boba Company, is itself experiencing a shortfall as the result of global supply chain issues (in this case, not receiving imported tapioca starch from Thailand due to a pile-up of shipping containers in U.S. ports), what’s being reported as an industry-wide shortage seems to be an isolated incident that will only affect tea shops that source tapioca balls directly from the U.S. Boba Company. Conversely, multiple boba shops in Los Angeles, as well as boba manufacturers in Taiwan and in the U.S., say they are not concerned about the future of their boba supply, meaning a run on boba at local tea shops across the San Gabriel Valley and beyond is not likely to materialize — despite those shortage reports.
That said, as news articles about the pending “boba-pocalypse” went viral, some manufacturers began to increase prices and limit the number of tapioca balls that could be purchased — seemingly in response to orders spiking from tea shop owners. “Some store owners are just getting panicked and trying to order more than what they need,” says Stacey Kwong, the co-owner of Milk + T, which has three locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Portland. This behavior, which echoes the toilet paper buying sprees of March 2020, is adversely affecting smaller, independently owned establishments that don’t have as much buying power as larger chains, though it hasn’t led to boba ecosystem meltdown.
The panic-buying has caused Tea Zone, one of the largest boba suppliers to U.S. tea shops, to run out of its most popular line of tapioca balls — the A2000, says Kwong. While Tea Zone is in low supply of the A2000 variety, its A1000 line that possesses less Q texture is still in ample supply. “If a small shop does run out of boba, just know it’s not their fault. Don’t go and give them a bad Yelp review. It’s a small business that’s part of the community,” says Kwong.
“There is no need to worry,” says Tomas Su, the owner of Sunright Tea, one of the fastest-growing boba chains in California with multiple locations in Los Angeles including in West LA, Little Tokyo, Monterey Park, and Rowland Heights. Su explained to Eater LA that even though his tapioca ball manufacturer in Taiwan is experiencing slightly lower production due to government restrictions placed on water usage following a drought, it shouldn’t affect Sunright Tea’s 11 locations. “In the absolute worst-case scenario, maybe your small local mom-and-pop boba shops [won’t] have boba on the menu for a day or two or they have to reach out to a different distributor, but it’s not going to affect boba drinkers because most shops buy in bulk for months in advance,” says Su.
While Boba Guys can point to supply chain issues for its latest shortfall, some shops have better safeguards in place to buffer against these kinds of disruptions, which are common for businesses highly dependent on exports. “Our boba supply chain is more than equipped to deal with any delays that may arise. There is no shortage,” says Chingyi Fu, the general manager of Meet Fresh, a growing chain of Taiwanese dessert shops with six locations in Los Angeles that sources boba from Taiwan. Representatives from Tiger Sugar, Yifang, Junbi, and Onezo also reported not being concerned about a boba shortage.
“I’m not worried; we are prepared and have a good inventory. I have enough boba for the next two months — I’ll be fine,” said Elton Keung, owner of two Labobatory tea shops in the San Gabriel Valley. Keung indicated in a recent Los Angeles Times article that his regular boba supplier is sold out of tapioca balls. He clarified to Eater LA that his shops can make boba from scratch if the shortage stretches beyond the two-month supply.
Last week’s boba shortage news has caused anxiety among boba enthusiasts. “When I heard there was a boba shortage I was low-key freaking out. Boba is my happy treat and I get it weekly and now it’s going to be a luxury,” said Loreen Hwang, an LA native who typically visits Yifang, Sunright, 7 Leaves, and LA Tea Lounge. However, when Hwang visited YiFang and inquired about the shortage on a recent visit, she was informed that it was not a problem.
“Boba runs in my blood. When I first heard I was shocked with a mix of fear,” said Evelyn Koo, an LA resident whose favorite tea shops include Half & Half, Tastea, Wushiland, Chicha SanSen, and BobaPop “I had a mindset of, ‘It’s time to stock-up on tapioca starch and ingredients to make it myself,’ especially after what we’ve learned from this pandemic,” says Koo. However, on Koo’s last boba run, she did not notice any signs of a boba shortage or price increases at the store.
While last week’s reported boba shortage will affect some tea shops, the majority will not be impacted beyond short-term disruptions caused by recent hoarding rather than supply chain issues. Boba drinkers can rest assured that there will be boba available the next time they visit their favorite shop.