Pulled in by the velvety flow of the staple brown sugar syrup, customers eagerly lined up at Bubbly Boba in Alpharetta, GA earlier this year. The milk tea shop’s optimal location in the heart of the city coupled with Generation Z’s boba craze, generated a hub for teenagers as they started summer. Stella Chen and her family opened the business in 2018, seeing a void to fill for bubble tea in the city. The shop’s menu contains the classics drawn from the creation of milk tea in Taiwan, but it is also dotted with twists and never-before-seen concoctions. In that way, Bubbly Boba serves as a bridge between the traditional East Asian treat and American trends: it is inherently Asian-American. However, the once lively and inviting vibe of the shop is now on a hiatus. A delicate piece of paper that announces a two-week break sits in its windowsill; no longer are there lines overflowing with conversation that snake around the block. As the number of cases soar in Georgia, Chen and her family continue to navigate solutions to maintain their role in the community.
Bubbly Boba prides itself on its authenticity. Its conception is rooted in the desire to replicate true Taiwanese bubble tea.
“When we visit China, there are always milk tea shops everywhere, and we wanted to emulate the variety of flavors and toppings that they have,” Chen details.
The Chen family draws this commitment all the way down to their suppliers.
“A lot of our supplies are…purchased through Asian wholesalers or originate from Asia so that our products are more authentic.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many small businesses to reevaluate their supply chains—how they turn their materials into a final product. Current backlogs of shipping from China and East Asia mean that long-distance processes are no longer feasible, so companies—like Bubbly Boba—are looking for ways to streamline previously cumbersome procedures. For many, that includes localizing where they obtain those materials, or ingredients in this case.
As the reactions to the coronavirus unfold, social stigmas linking Chinese-Americans and the virus have given rise to a number of racially charged ideologies. This xenophobia has pushed for efforts to boycott Chinese-owned businesses in the United States, particularly worrying Asian-American entrepreneurs.
“We had some concerns about negative stereotypes linking Chinese-Americans and COVID-19 when news was surfacing about discrimination and hate crimes…We have obviously reduced our presence in public places to avoid contracting the virus, but we do keep in mind to steer clear of any areas that may have misinformed people,” Chen explains. “Fortunately, our community is relatively more inclusive and faces less stereotypes than many other areas.”
Looking forward, Bubbly Boba is weighing possible steps they can take to stay open while also practicing social distancing and other precautionary measures.
“Sanitation and limiting contact with customers and even amongst employees would be the largest issues we would face if we opened. We would only allow curbside and perhaps delivery, but these both require set up as we did not have these services before.”
The situation that the Chen family’s business finds itself in is an increasingly common one that many businesses are finding themselves in now. Small businesses across America are struggling to reopen while the number of cases is only accelerating. On top of that, Asian-owned businesses like Bubbly Boba face unique challenges with their supply chains and negative stigmas associating them with COVID-19. Eyes are on both the government and the Asian-American community as to what action they will take to protect these entrepreneurs and their businesses.