Helloooo Boba Guys and Gals!
Today we officially open our first store in Southern California. People often say you need to pinch yourself to believe if something is real. For us, we’ve been punching ourselves to make extra sure that it’s really happening. It still doesn’t feel real. Here’s the full story.
(Sorry, there is no TL;DR.)
Our Initial Thoughts on LA
For those who know Bin and I personally, you know it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. We originally answered a “What’s Up Wednesday” (a weekly Instagram Stories / Snapchat series I do where I answer questions from the public) about expanding to Los Angeles with a "No, there are other markets to go to first." We actually got several clear-cut “No, you won’t do well here” responses when I posed the question to the public later. I expected to see some “No’s” (this was before Instagram had a polling function), but some of y’all DMs were straight up direct and blunt! ;) So we thought, “Okay, maybe L.A. is way too saturated.” We benched the idea for nearly six months.
I did remember one comment in particular, though. One fan wrote, “We’ve seen a lot of boba places similar to Boba Guys, so if you come to L.A., you need to figure out a way to be different.” We loved hearing that because it really changed our approach to expansion. From that moment on, we said to ourselves that if we were to go to L.A., we’d have to show them something different.
We just didn’t know what the market really wanted. We had lots of landlords approach us during those six months, but we couldn’t pull the trigger and I felt bad leading them on. I have often told people that it’s like a relationship—when you aren’t ready, ain’t no person gonna make you happy! Don’t string them along!
So there we went, content just building stores in SF and NY.
The Turning Point
Then, something amazing happened early last year. At the advice of one of my mentors, I looked at our numbers. Given that we’re fully-independent, Bin and I don’t have a real board, so I really didn’t have a reason to keep our metrics current. We essentially just kept swimming as Dory would say.
My mentor said, “You guys are changing culture. Thousands of people come to your store every day. You have the chance to change not just boba, but the landscape of America. Even the hottest restaurants can only influence hundreds of people a day. You touch tens of thousands.”
She was right. As of today, we serve around 10,000 drinks a day. According to our Square reports, about 60% of our customers are new. That means 2M new people are touched by Boba Guys every year. And given that our culture and approach is atypical compared to the rest of the industry, people generally engage on a deeper level when visiting a Boba Guys. We needed to own that. Thank you, Wen, for reminding me of that.
Back on the Saddle
With our renewed confidence, we starting looking for spaces last year. We almost took a deal in a food hall situation, but we kept going back to the IG comment. We needed to really show something different. We needed a raison d’etre.
Bin, my co-founder, described our rationale beautifully in our recent interview with the NY Times:
“This is our first L.A. location, though people have been asking us for years,” said Bin Chen, who started the company with Andrew Chau as a pop-up in San Francisco in 2011. “Our mission is to bridge cultures, and L.A. has an incredibly diverse demographic — all races, from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Mr. Chen cited the Los Angeles food scene and chefs like Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ as inspiration: “He paved the way for really inventive cuisine that melded and drew from different cultures, much like our own drinks, like the dirty horchata,” which was influenced by the taquerias he and Mr. Chau frequented while working in the Mission District in San Francisco.
In the end, if we want to continue bridging cultures, we needed to come to L.A. If there's one thing that New York taught us is that despite there being hundreds of boba shops around, only a few could truly introduce boba and tea to new audiences. Yes, we've thought about Austin, PDX, and D.C. as well, but we're simply in L.A. too much to avoid it. It was just silly and our fault that it took so long.
After a series of fortunate events, we found ourselves locking down two potential sites, one in Historical Filipino (HiFi) town and one in Culver City. We are opening the Culver City one today. The HiFi location is expected to open later this summer. You can read about it here.
The lesson for us is that we just needed to try. You see, deep down inside, I actually think we were intimidated by L.A. We shouldn’t admit that to the public, but it’s 100% true. Even though this is our 12th location and have been building Boba Guys for seven years, we still have doubts every day. And I share it publicly because we’ve gotten feedback that it helps aspiring entrepreneurs. So yeah, part of the reason we went to New York before Los Angeles is because L.A. is intimidating, even moreso than New York.
The reason is that Southern California is the motherfucking homeland of boba (in the US). The 626. SGV. And yeah, we’re originally known as those two Asian American kids who made hipster, bougie boba. We remember all the comments in the early days like, “you’re boba for white people.” We think we're American Boba, which is entirely different, but we get it. And it got in our head a bit.
Can’t Stop the Feeling
Fast forward, we’ve been soft open for the last three weeks now and we can’t thank you enough. We feel so foolish and silly for waiting to come to L.A. for so long. Those lines… those lines are just plain insane. Thank you so much for making us feel a part of the community.
The Platform in Culver City is actually a special place because that too is a story of serendipitous events. We verbally agreed on the lease terms in two weeks, which is incredibly fast for us. The landlords actually sought us out and figured we’d be perfect for the space. I happen to be in LA in preparation of the HiFi store and was in the middle of eating a sampler plate at Guisados (soooo good) when I got the call. I ran over to The Platform to scope it out and immediately fell in love with the place. I sent pics of it to Bin like we were adopting a puppy or something. It happened so fast. We signed the lease on March 1 and here we are opening on May 12th. Thank you Joey and David for betting on us.
What to Expect
Lastly, we want to directly address those of you who live in L.A. First, we don’t ever expect to “take over” or “disrupt” the boba and tea scene down here. There are plenty of great shops and we frequent them all the time. The goal is to add to the fabric of what already exists. It’s like adding a new cut to a hit song.
If you follow us in SF and NY, you’ll know that our mission is to bridge cultures. What we’re really trying to do is actually go beyond boba and tea and bring people together from various backgrounds. It's goes beyond ethnic culture-- we often tell our team that Boba Guys bridges all cultures: techie / hip, urban / suburban, East Coast / West Coast, and even Team Edward vs. Team Jacob (sadly, that reference is dated now...).
We see ourselves as an experience company that happens to serve food and drinks. In SF and NY, you’ll see our Flavorbooks, globally-inspired drink techniques, fancy split-flap signs, and mixed-use spaces. Over time, we hope to do that in LA as well. Of course, we do hope you love our drinks and gram that Strawberry Matcha Latte or Dirty Horchata… but honestly, we just want you to experience something different. That’s what bridging cultures is all about.
And if it’s your first time, please feel free to peruse our blog. You’ll see that we try to operate as transparently as possible. Always have, always will.
Thanks again for reading.
Have a nice day and a pleasant tomorrow,
Andrew & Bin