Boba tea shops fear tapioca shortage may reach Portland


Some bubble tea shops buying up the supply of tapioca balls before shortage impacts business

(PMG Photo courtesy Jamie Valdez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The next time you try to buy bubble tea in Beaverton, you might not find it.

Stacey Kwong, who is the chief executive officer of MILK+T in downtown Beaverton, says the bubble tea shop is at risk of running out of the tea-based drink — also known as boba. The drink is made with chewy tapioca balls and comes in a range of flavors.

Boba can be a reference to the tapioca balls or the entire drink.

Boba cafes across the country order boba pearls from Taiwan and tapioca starch from Thailand, but both products currently are facing shipping delays, according to Newsweek.

At first, Kwong, 28, wasn’t worried about the shortage due to her distributor in Los Angeles giving her a heads-up about the demand for tapioca balls after one company tried to buy up all of the supply.

The distributor limited supply to three cases per person compared to the 10 cases per week Kwong usually would buy. The price also went from $30 to about $40 a case.

“That’s the distributor’s way of trying to control the inventory that they have,” Kwong said. “Because we’re a small shop, there’s a lot of bigger shops and franchises out there that have a lot more buying power. If they see that a distributor has four pallets in stock, they will buy all of the pallets because they can.”

She added, “That leaves us little guys and shops that are smaller than us that can’t get any inventory.”

Kwong compared the situation to the toilet paper shortage many Americans experienced at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. People started to buy up large amounts toilet paper out of a fear of a potential shortage, which then created a real shortage due to people hoarding supply.

However, one week later, Kwong’s distributor informed her that that they would be out of inventory for at least a month.

The store owner then managed to get 20 cases from a different company, which would give the shop the opportunity to sell boba for two or three more weeks.

Mo Cha Tea House, another bubble tea shop with two locations in Beaverton, isn’t too worried about the shortage — for now.

General manager Jerry Pei says the shop bought the tapioca pearls at the regular price but heard that other stores are being limited to five cases per order.

“For the boba shortage, it is said it is hard to have the boba imported at this moment,” Pei said. “The vendor notified us a couple weeks ago, and we have ordered 100 cases of boba. I’m pretty sure we can get over this crisis.”

He expects the shortage to last three months maximum.

Nationally, Newsweek reports that business owners are telling customers that the shortage over the next couple of weeks could take months to rectify.

As for MILK+T, the shop now has boba-making machines to help prevent a future boba shortage. Those machines can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Kwong says she keeps reassuring customers that the issue is under control but hopes people can understand the pressure some shops are under.

“For the customers out there who might experience their favorite shop running out of boba for a couple days, don’t get mad at them and don’t leave them a bad Yelp review. It’s not their fault,” she said. “They’re trying their hardest to stock up, so be understanding. Try to support your shop still, but maybe skip out on boba for the next two days.”

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