Originally published on WCIA 3 News September 23, 2019.
U.S. Census numbers show Champaign County is home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the state outside of the Chicago area, with people from nearly 80 countries around the world. In 2016, nearly 30-percent of immigrants in the county came from countries in East Asia.
“We have a big population of Asian students, Chinese students,” Teamoji co-founder James says. “We want to do something here to make them feel like home.”
He says that concept of home is what drove a group of UI graduates to open a bubble tea shop in Campustown, called Teamoji. His co-founder, Alex Zhang, says their connection to campus has helped the shop succeed.
“This place is founded by U of I graduates,” Alex says. “We all graduated from here in 2015, 2016, so we know what the students need; they want beverages, they also want a place to study, take a break, hang out with some friends.”
So what exactly is bubble tea?
“The way we explain, is it’s like a coffee latte, except instead of coffee, we use the tea,” James explains. “We have different kinds of add-ons like boba and different kinds of jellies.”
Fast forward to 2019, and the Teamoji co-founders say the bubble tea trend is brewing up business all around their shop.
“I think it’s a trend, that’s how the economies work,” Alex says. “We started as the third or fourth bubble tea in the region and we did pretty well, beyond our expectation and then other places from other regions crowded into Chambana. This is a small area, within two blocks we have eight or nine.”
One of the other early bubble tea shops in the area is Latea. Chris Ransdell also acknowledges there’s quite a bit of competition.
“It forces us to continually improve our game,” he says. “We can’t just sit and be happy with what we’re doing. But yeah, myself and the owner are constantly looking for new things to try and ways to improve, so yeah, the competition’s definitely a good thing.”
Latea first opened in Indiana in 2013, before arriving in Champaign in 2015. He says one of the goals is to promote the tea culture in town.
“The Midwest in the United States is not necessarily known for drinking a lot of tea,” Chris admits. “But kind of located near the university is a great help for us in the tea world, with all the international population around.”
Chris was a student at Purdue University when he took a semester off and met Latea’s owner, Jack Hsiao, who had just opened a shop there and was working to build a Midwestern bubble tea following.
“I think introducing the local community to the bubble tea industry, that’s going to bring more growth to us and the bubble tea industry in general,” Chris predicts. “On a weekly basis, I’ll have people walk into the store and ask ‘what is bubble tea?’”
At each stop I made on my bubble tea tour, I asked what made the drink so great. Kung Fu Tea’s Mandy Xue shared her answer with me.
“Best part of bubble tea is it’s a fast drink,” she says. “There’s the brewed drinks and then you have coffee like Starbucks.”
Although the stores I stopped by varied in how they make bubble tea (by hand or machine), they seem to follow a general pattern: First, adding in the toppings. Then, adding boba to the cup, then sugar (adjustable amounts), milk and ice. After that, they add the tea and shake it all until it’s well-blended and ready to serve.
Kung Fu Tea has brought bubble tea to cities all over the world.
“It actually started in New York,” Mandy says. “It’s a Taiwanese-based company. So now, they have stores global-wide. They actually have two stores in Cambodia now. They actually started in the U.S. before they moved to Taiwan. They wanted to start a boba tea that’s authentic to Taiwanese taste.”
Tsaocca is another international chain offering bubble tea in Champaign.
Barista Athena Lai says the shop pays tribute to culinary adventures.
“Tsaocca specifically started in China and then there was this group of people that wanted to improve on tea, so they created this bubble tea shop,” Athena says.
It all comes down to the shop’s name.
“So, they’re on this journey to finding the holy land of boba tea and stuff like that,” Athena explains. “Hence the name, Tsaocca.”
Now, that tea pilgrimage leads to Central Illinois.