Why the UK bubble tea market is ‘special’

An Instagram-worthy ombré bubble tea may not seem like the most British of beverages, compared to a cup of Earl Grey during elevenses. Yet Taiwanese boba tea, known for its chewy tapioca pearls and endless customisation options, has become increasingly ubiquitous in the UK. The country is certainly not the first to cash in on this market, but it’s found an even bigger opportunity amid a shifting demographic and changing consumer base.

Served hot or cold, bubble tea is typically a sweetened fruity or milky tea – always shaken, never stirred – with starchy tapioca balls slurped through a jumbo straw. Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea started spreading as stalls blossomed across Hong Kong, China and the US, gaining popularity among Taiwanese communities in California in the 90s.  

And the boba tea bubble doesn’t seem to be popping anytime soon. An April 2023 report from Fortune Business Insights projects this global industry will grow exponentially, from $2.46bn (£1.94bn) in 2023, to $4.08bn (£3.22bn) by 2030. An October 2023 report from Allied Market Research, projects industry profits will soar to $5.4bn (£4.26bn) by 2032, with growth rates of more than 6% per year.

In the UK, boba shops seem to be sprouting up overnight around busy tube stations, trendy high streets and at university cafés. Franchises including Gong cha, Bubbleology, Mooboo and T4 are rapidly multiplying. Long lines of enthusiastic customers attest to the popularity of the drink, with people posting on social media about enjoying #BobaTime – on TikTok, #BubbleTea tops 8.3 billion views.

“The UK bubble tea market is special,” says bubble tea influencer Kristin McCoy-Ward, “because the people… have made it their own.”Bubble tea is highly customisable, which is appealing for a Gen Z consumer base who likes to put their own twist on drinks (Credit: Alamy)

Bubble tea is highly customisable, which is appealing for a Gen Z consumer base who likes to put their own twist on drinks (Credit: Alamy)

Right place, right time

In the UK, the pre-existing cultural preference for tea has primed consumers to embrace bubble tea in a singular way.

“There are more tea drinkers in the world than coffee, and bubble tea is just taking on a more modern twist of drinking tea,” says husband and wife duo Adam Chen Yang and Mary Ma, owners of family-run, independent shop Cuppo Bubbo. “Compared to the US, Australia and South East Asia, London didn’t have nearly as [many] bubble tea shops, so it’s really good to see more of them popping up.”

Justin Goes, development director for UK and Ireland at the tea franchise Gong cha, which is planning to open 500 new stores in Britain, believes “bubble tea is one of the most exciting segments of the UK’s F and B [food and beverage] industry”, especially as the demand for “east-to-west food and beverage spikes in the UK”.

The beverage addresses what Goes calls an “explosion” in broad consumer demand, but its appeal and growth is specifically bolstered by young consumers with new purchasing power – and specific preferences.

“Due to its highly customisable and visual, Instagrammable nature, bubble tea is really appealing for Gen Z consumers and students,” say Goes. He says 70% of Gong cha customers are students, as the chain regularly runs student promotions and has an extensive network of student society partners.

That bubble tea lends itself so well to the endless customisation and bold flavours Gen Z prefers is part of the reason it’s so popular, explains McCoy-Ward, known on social media platforms as Bubble Tea Kristin. The beverage feeds into frenzied FOMO and the desire to get in on the biggest, quirkiest and prettiest new trend.Bubble tea hits the right notes for a diverse consumer base (Credit: Getty Images)

Bubble tea hits the right notes for a diverse consumer base (Credit: Getty Images)

Muslim customers, says McCoy-Ward, have also taken up bubble tea as a treat of choice, as it’s “perfect for people who can’t drink alcohol and don’t want coffee”. In England and Wales, Muslims make up 6.5% of the population, and are also one of the youngest groups.

McCoy-Ward, who began selling bubble tea in the UK Midlands in 2015, noticed two years later that bubble tea was becoming popular with Muslim customers. “I remember having to explain… how the products were Halal, no gelatine and vegetarian,” she says.

This consumer segment is finding bubble tea specifically catering to their preferences, in large part from Muslim-owned independent shops. McCoy-Ward has featured East London’s Boba Coma, which created a special series of drinks: Pistachio; Rose; Falooda, a cold milk and vermicelli-based dessert popular in South Asia; and Karak, a colloquial word to describe strong, sometimes spiced milky tea.The low cost of doing boba business

With the customer base firmly in place, boba stores have become an attractive opportunity for UK entrepreneurs. Since 2020, McCoy-Ward has pivoted to offering consultation services to hopeful bubble tea store owners. For those who want to get started, the barrier to entry is lower than many other businesses, especially in the beverage space.

Since bubble tea is a grab-and-go beverage, even a tiny shop area can suffice, explains Yandis Ying, co-founder of Dot Dot, a bubble tea and waffle shop on Stoke Newington Church Street in London. (Dot Dot is only 250 sq ft [23.3 sq m].)

What’s inside the shop is also often inexpensive; unlike an espresso machine, which can run up to five figures, bubble tea shop owners can use a simple rice cooker or pot for the boba and kettles or warmers for the tea. “If you have a fridge, a way to make the tea and the cups and toppings, those are pretty much the basics,” says McCoy-Ward.

She says establishing a mid-range bubble tea shop can be as low as £30,000 ($38,100); takeaway stands may even be established with four-figure start-up cots.Depending on their footprint and location, bubble tea shops can be less expensive to set up than coffee shops (Credit: Alamy)

Depending on their footprint and location, bubble tea shops can be less expensive to set up than coffee shops (Credit: Alamy)

Channelling home

McCoy-Ward, whose clients have doubled every year since 2021, says many hope to establish a bubble tea shop and leave it behind for their children as a legacy – an investment with sentimental value.

There’s also a deep sense of nostalgia for many would-be proprietors. For Yen-Ting Li, the owner of the Dragon Cat Cafe in East London, setting up shop is much more about sharing a taste of home than meeting rising demand or chasing a popular trend.

“In Taiwan, there are thousands of tea shops and very few of them use the colourful syrups, tea powders and popping boba that can be found on most high streets in the UK,” says Li. Yet despite the British twist on the beverages, she still “feels proud” when she sees a drink reminiscent of her childhood in Taipei gaining popularity.

Ying and co-founder Susie Lau of Dot Dot took the decision to sell bubble tea as they bonded over their daughters studying in the same nursery, and their love for Hong Kong’s food traditions. Together, they enjoy pouring their heart – and heritage – into exciting new flavours. One of their most popular favourites is a bubble tea mixed with coffee – inspired by things like Chinese New Year and a classic Hong Kong staple, yuanyang tea. 

“[We] wanted to set up something to bring in happiness,” says Ying. To them, adds Lau, opening a bubble tea shop was, “an extension of being a host at home”. https://itusiapalagi.com/

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