Sunright Tea Studio in Arcadia is connected to a food court, set in a typical Southern California strip mall just a few blocks south of the famous Arboretum. The shop is somewhat tucked away from the main drag of Baldwin Avenue, but there’s a 99 Ranch market that keeps the plaza busy, bringing plenty of foot traffic to the area. There are no fewer than six other boba shops within two blocks of this Sunright location, evidence of the drink’s incredible popularity in this neighborhood, but the nearby Temple City High School keeps Sunright especially busy during the weekdays. Sunright opens at noon daily, but for workers, each day starts much earlier in the kitchen.
Started in 2019 in Southern California, Sunright first opened in Diamond Bar and has expanded to 19 locations, including two up in Northern California. It imports most of its ingredients straight from Taiwan, including its tea leaves. From brewing teas and cooking boba in the morning to making fresh fruit juices and molasses-infused brown sugar, there is a lot of prep that goes into operating a boba shop. Eater LA followed the crew at the Arcadia location of Sunright Tea Studio on a busy Saturday in May 2022. This location opened in November 2021 and has quickly become one of the two busiest outlets in the chain. This is what it takes to run a busy boba shop for a day.
Cooking the boba
Lam comes in for the morning kitchen prep. He starts by making brown sugar boba (BSB). BSB takes a while to cook as it needs multiple rounds of boiling and resting. The store can go through four batches or more in a day. He works on the honey boba next, and multitasks by slicing oranges and brewing tea while the boba is cooking. Baristas’ shifts are usually five hours each, but the opening kitchen staff have longer shifts at seven-and-a-half hours, with a 30-minute break.
Ngo clocks in and puts on her Sunright baseball cap, which sports a boba corgi pinned to the side. She’s worked here since around the time it opened and has her routine down. She starts preparing the front area, wiping down all the counters and the self-order kiosks. She fills the tea containers, gets ice from the kitchen, and warms up all the machines. A customer has already tried to come in, even though the store doesn’t open until noon.
By now all the morning staff has clocked in, six in all including the manager. They finish prepping, including pre-swirling the cups for the brulee drinks with caramel custard by hand. They keep a couple of dozen pre-swirled cups in the refrigerated case to save time when the crowd comes in.
First customer arrives
The store is already prepped so Wroth opens the shop a couple of minutes early — and immediately a customer comes in. On a normal day, Sunright takes orders via two self-ordering kiosks, online via the ToastTab system, and also Uber Eats (which handles deliveries). The baristas gear up for nonstop orders throughout this very hot San Gabriel Valley weekend. Self-ordering kiosks are uncommon at old-school boba shops, but Sunright switched completely to these fairly intuitive kiosks early in the pandemic, finding that they made workflow easier.
With so many customizations, the touch-screen kiosks allow customers to choose their drink, then the boba type, and then additional ingredients or modifications. Everyone has their own preference for sweetness or ice level; not having these instructions go through a person behind the counter makes life a lot easier for staff. Orders are delivered to a screen behind the counter, where the staff can easily monitor and start preparing the drink.
Meet the customers: Mable and Jay
Mable and Jay, a young Asian American couple, are both regulars at this Sunright. Mable thinks they get the sweetness level just right here, so she orders the regular sweetness, unlike at other boba shops. Her favorite right now is the Ceylon milk tea, but she likes to try something different during each visit. Jay always gets the standard Sunright boba milk tea. “Sunright makes it the way it’s supposed to be,” says Jay.
The first hour is always one of the busiest
Including Wroth, there were five staff members shaking drinks out front and there’s no time to rest. There are more than 20 drinks waiting to be made.
The tally so far: 22.7 percent of the daily average sales, 75 total orders, 155 drinks total, in just the first hour-plus of business.
Kitchen assistant comes in
Anson Eng, the midday kitchen assistant, comes in. By the end of the day, the kitchen staff will have cooked multiple batches of boba. Each batch is composed of three kilograms of raw boba and makes approximately 50-60 drinks.
It’s 92 degrees — one of the hottest days of the year so far — and there are already 23 people in line just to order at the screen.
Current tally: 67.8 percent of the shop’s daily average, 237 total orders, 335 drinks total
The Wi-Fi goes down
The self-ordering kiosks stop working since the internet is down. The staff doesn’t seem frantic, though, and Wroth knows what to do — it’s not the first time this has happened. Wroth closes the online ordering platform and starts taking orders at the register, the old-fashioned way. The credit card transactions will be processed later and even though there’s a risk of some of the cards being declined, they’d rather not close the shop. Without the self-ordering kiosk, the ordering slows down and the line grows even longer, with more than a dozen people waiting to order. Assistant manager Kevin Lai is on the phone with Spectrum to figure out what is going on with the internet.
Diane clocks out
She thought it was a pretty normal weekend. They’re always prepared to be this busy, and slower weekdays calm her down. Tonight after her shift she’s going to a William Black concert at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood with her friends.
The internet comes back on
The team closes down the register and goes back to taking orders via the self-ordering kiosks. The online ordering platform is turned back on. The crowd today is a motley one. There’s a high school-aged couple decked out in a gown and a suit, presumably stopping in on the way to prom night. There are families with younger kids, but for the most part the customers are groups of friends catching up with each other as they move through the line to place orders for their favorite drink of the moment.
Meet the customers: Thea, Belle, Ignes
It’s girls’ day out for Thea, Belle, and Ignes. They’re young and casually chatting away while waiting for their drinks (Ignes ordered a white peach oolong tea). Thea comes to Sunright once a week to get its fruit teas, though she and her friends normally go to the Monterey Park location, closer to where they live. Since it’s the weekend, they’re spending the day out in Arcadia, perhaps because it’s closer to the big Westfield mall.
The day shift clocks out
Chheang and Go head out. Next week is finals week so Chheang is going home to study, while Go has homework to do. Go thinks it’s a bit busier today because it was a hot day out. The closing kitchen worker, Brandon Nishinaka, has already clocked in. Like Lam, Brandon’s role in the kitchen is to cook boba, brew tea, and prepare the fresh fruits that are used in the drinks. The closing kitchen shift also washes everything at the end of the night, from the pots to the tea containers. The baristas are mainly in charge of preparing the drink orders as well as keeping the front area stocked with tea, boba, and fruits.
Treats for the staff
A regular who comes to Sunright every other day brought a dozen doughnuts from Class One Donuts in Glendora for the crew. They’re still busy so there’s no time for a doughnut break yet, but they can’t wait to grab one later.
Supplies are delivered
The shop is getting its supply of fruits and dairy. It includes a lot: milk, fresh mangoes, strawberries, and oranges. The delivery guy makes four separate trips with his dolly. The shipment, which normally arrives at noon, came late today, but luckily Sunright hasn’t run out of ingredients yet. The staff heard that another location had run out of strawberries. The shop orders from this supplier twice a week and the fruits and dairy will be used over the next few days.
Wroth takes a break from helping the baristas prepare drinks. She grabs a doughnut and heads to one of the food court tables to work on administrative stuff on her laptop. Wroth has been working at boba shops since her first year of college, so working at Sunright after graduating was a natural move. She’s a boba lover and even has her own boba Instagram account called The Boba-ventures that details her thoughts on the latest boba shops she’s tried. As a manager, she still gets to teach. Most of their employees are students or recent graduates working for the first time, so — a teacher at heart — Wroth makes sure they gain the experience that will help them in their next jobs. The Arcadia location was the first location where Wroth single-handedly managed the opening and trained everyone, and she knows she doesn’t need to come here in person as much since everyone knows what they’re doing. When not working or searching for the next boba spot to try, Wroth and her fiance teach a high school marching band in Chino.
It’s slowing down — for now
Wroth gets ready to take off. Her fiance — who also works at Sunright — is working a double shift today at the Rancho Cucamonga and Chino locations, though, so she’s in no rush to get home. The two actually met while working at a different boba shop, and now her fiance works as her multi-unit assistant manager. She doesn’t cut him any slack, though.
Current tally: 81.6 percent of daily average, 328 orders, 573 drinks.
Getting ready to close
The team is preparing to close at 9 p.m. today. They’ve closed half the bar and emptied one set of the tea pots. The food court next door has already shut down, so it already feels quieter at the store. The crew is quieter as well, but they’re still moving swiftly while cleaning and making orders.
Not so fast
Just when you think it’s almost closing time, there is an Uber Eats order for 14 drinks. Though it’s not very common to get an Uber Eats order that big, the Sunright crew is unfazed. They often get large orders from office workers. Abigail packs the drinks in a large cardboard box, so the driver can carry them easily.
The floor is swept
Lai goes to lock the front door; the Uber Eats driver comes to pick up the order just in the nick of time. The store is now officially closed.
Ready to go
The staff takes out the trash, mops the floor, and empties the tea containers. Lai has been here the longest, more than five hours, and he needs to stay to lock up. The baristas quietly pack up to leave — they each are carrying a boba drink to take home. Most of the baristas are students, so between school and work they are tired, but tonight when they get home they need to study for finals. Only Lai and the night kitchen shift worker, Nishinaka, are left to make sure the kitchen is clean.
Lai and Nishinaka lock up and leave. They both are planning to just go home, eat, play games to wind down, and sleep.
It’s easy to overlook how hectic a small boba shop like Sunright Tea Studio can be until seen firsthand. The young staff members worked hard nonstop for five or more hours, running around and working with their hands, making drinks or getting more ingredients from the kitchen. No one was idle — on average the baristas made one drink every three minutes. It was a busy day with a lot of behind-the-scenes prep, but even with incidents like an internet outage, Sunright’s crew managed to keep the shop running. As the doors are locked and the lights turned off, there’s a sense of relief. Everyone’s been on their feet all day, it’s time to sit down and relax — with a boba drink in hand.