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Another Unlikely Pandemic Shortage: Boba Tea

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Imagine hearing that the United States was running out of coffee beans.

This is how many West Coast beverage connoisseurs felt this week when they learned that tapioca, the starch used to make the sweet, round, chewy black bubbles – or pearls – that are the popular boba tea drink was in short supply.

“I was shocked,” said Leanne Yuen, a longtime Boba drinker and student at the University of California at Irvine. “What should I do now?”

The looming Boba shortage is yet another sign of how the pandemic has confused global supply chains, turned the industry upside down, and caused shortages from toilet paper to electronics to ketchup. In this case, a surge in pent-up demand for overseas-assembled products coupled with a labor shortage due to coronavirus cases or quarantine protocols has resulted in months of sea flooding in ports in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and ships abandoning delivering goods from Asia – including Tapioca – waiting for sea.

Boba, or bubble tea, a drink that can be made from milk or fruit-flavored green or black tea, is originally from Taiwan and has steadily gained popularity and notoriety in the United States in the 2000s. Boba suppliers in the San Francisco Bay Area who are running low on tapioca said their supplies of fully formed boba are from Taiwan, while supplies of cassava roots, which are used to make tapioca, are from Thailand and the Pacific Islands .

“Everything is being held up at the docks,” said Arianna Hansen, a sales representative for Hayward, Calif., Boba retailer Fanale Drinks, which serves thousands of stores across the country. Ms. Hansen said the shipments had been secured for several months and the company’s tapioca supplies were dangerously low.

“It was definitely frustrating – some people were mad at us, but at the same time, it’s not really our fault,” said Ms. Hansen.

There is no sign that the ship’s delays will ease up anytime soon. The number of container ships waiting at anchor to dock in Los Angeles or Long Beach peaked at 40 in February, according to the Marine Exchange in Southern California. That fell to 19 ships on Thursday, still far from the usual Zero-to-one ships, which were the norm preandemic, said Kip Louttit, the exchange’s executive director.

Unloading massive cargo ships can take up to a week or more, Louttit said. Five more ships are floating at sea because there is no room for them in the bay. He said it was an almost unprecedented fuse; Ships have not had to drift while they waited since 2004.

Similarly, the situation is cramped in San Francisco, with 20 ships waiting at anchor and 19 more “cruising” offshore compared to the usual eight or nine at anchor, according to Captain Lynn Korwatch, executive director of the Region’s Navy Exchange.

“The situation is extremely unusual,” she said.

Leadway International Inc., another major Boba supplier in Hayward, also said its tapioca inventory is low as deliveries are slower than usual. The company’s business development director Edward Shen said he didn’t want to call it a “lack” of fears that could lead Boba stores to hoard tapioca and make matters worse.

“Shopkeepers panic so they are probably ordering more than they need,” Shen said.

Ms. Hansen said she expected the supply to be nearly normal again by the summer.

Meanwhile, anxious boba shopkeepers are looking for tapioca wherever they can.

“It’s very stressful – no boba means no sale,” said Aaron Qian, the owner of Tea Hut, a boba business with three locations in the Bay Area. “If you don’t have a boba, they don’t want the tea. You just go. “

Mr. Qian, 32, said two of his suppliers were already sold out and the other two had rationed the amount of tapioca he could buy each week. If he doesn’t find Boba soon, Mr. Qian said, his shops will be closed within two weeks.

Updated

April 16, 2021, 12:43 p.m. ET

Despite the pandemic, Mr. Qian said, business was booming because with other entertainment venues closed, drinking boba was one of the few options for “cheap fun”. Now he may have to temporarily shut down and fire employees.

Brian Tran, the co-owner of Honeybear Boba in San Francisco, said he was also desperately looking for more tapioca. He expects to run out by the end of next week if he can’t replenish his supplies.

“A Boba store without a Boba is like a dealership with no cars to sell,” said Tran. “It’s like a steakhouse without a steak.”

Boba Guys, one of the country’s most successful Boba chains, said in an Instagram post earlier this month that some Boba stores had run out of tapioca balls and others would follow suit in the next few weeks. The owners of Boba Guys also run the US Boba Company, which produces tapioca pearls and sells them to other stores across the country.

The Boba shortage, first reported in The San Francisco Chronicle, has panicked Boba fans. A post posting the news on the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group, a hangout for Asians around the world, drew 10,000 comments and messages of dismay and sadness.

Boba is “something that translates into many Asian cultures,” said Zoe Imansjah, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara and administrator of the Subtle Asian Characteristics group. “Something so simple can bring many people together.”

Ms. Yuen, 21, gets Boba once or twice a week and sells Boba stickers online. She said she grew up with her parents in a Boba store near her home in South San Francisco and is now considering getting Boba to connect with friends.

“Many of my Asian-American friends will connect through Boba,” said Ms. Yuen, whose family is from Hong Kong. “Hong Kong has a lot of good milk tea. It kind of brings us back to our roots. “

Boba isn’t just a California indulgence, however, and the US has seen recurring news of a shortage.

Khoa Vu, a 28-year-old Ph.D. A student at the University of Minnesota said he drinks Boba two or three times a week – peach oolong tea with Boba is his order. He was afraid of having to tell his 4-year-old daughter the news of the shortage.

“It’s a weekend after we finish dinner. I tell my child, “If you eat well, I’ll take you to the Boba store,” said Mr. Vu. “It will be a shock to her.”

All hope is not lost for Boba fanatics. Smaller Boba suppliers like iBEV LLC, which sell to about 100 stores, could potentially make it through the shortage. Carley Olund, office manager at iBEV, said the company had prepared for shipping delays and stocked enough tapioca to get through.

And Sharetea, a Boba chain with dozens of stores in 20 states, said there was no shortage.

For those Boba drinkers experiencing shortages, this can be an opportunity to try different toppings in their tea, such as cheese foam, fruit jellies, or egg pudding.

“Maybe I’ll try to take a break from the tapioca to relieve that pressure,” Ms. Yuen said.

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Robert Dunfee