Sunday, September 24, 2023

A drink of happiness: New Boba Tea Factory aims for Taiwanese authenticity

The Boba Tea Factory mural inside the shop on Shipyard Boulevard. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Grace Gao has been operating her new tea shop for a little over a week in the Port City. Already, it’s seeing praise from customers, even if tucked away in an unassuming strip mall on Shipyard Boulevard.

“How did you find us?” Gao asked while presenting a traditional boba tea — sometimes called “bubble tea” or “milk tea.” Gao brews it with fresh Taiwanese tea leaves, added condensed milk and tapioca pearls floating up from the bottom.

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“Facebook,” a customer responded. “Everyone is talking about it.”

Four or five customers made their way in on Monday right before noon at The Boba Tea Factory. Gao was coming off a weekend of 115 customers a day, she said — so a slower morning gave her time to restock.

“All my customers that come here —  like 80% or 90% — post about my shop on social media,” she said.

Bright white subway tiles and a mural of lush foliage are an inviting respite from the former green and yellow walls of the Subway once located in suite 20 at 800 Shipyard Blvd. All remnants of baked bread and sliced deli meats have been replaced with fresh fruit and tea aromas.

Containers of fruit concentrate — mango, watermelon, blueberry, strawberry — are positioned under urns of black and jasmine green tea. Nearby are the boba tapioca pearls, made of cassava starch, a root vegetable from South America. Gao orders all of the ingredients from a distributor in Taiwan.

“Our boba tea is authentic,” she said.

Thai boba tea is one of 30 options customers can order at The Boba Tea Factory. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The drink became popular in the 1980s in Taichung and took off in other Asian countries, such as Japan, in the 1990s. Gao said today there are tea shops on almost every corner in New York City. 

Familiar with its demand, Gao moved to the Big Apple from China 17 years ago. Her family — specifically, her siblings — run Japanese restaurants, yet she worked at a bank. 

“I was sick of being in the office, trying to call and get customers to sign up for more business,” Gao said. 

When she and her husband had their baby in 2020, Gao said she decided to leave the banking industry. She wanted to spend more time with her son but also find a career she could love. 

“I came to the states for the American dream,” Gao said. “I wanted to work for myself but not in a restaurant.”

Gao decided to do an apprenticeship with a friend in Pennsylvania to see how she ran her own boba tea shop. Its popularity was high — unsurprising to Gao.

“Boba tea has always been a social drink,” she said — a drink of happiness. “In Asia, you give it to someone when they pass a test or do a good job.”

While Gao considered moving closer to family — Texas or Oklahoma — to open The Boba Tea Factory, she also noticed there were plenty of boba tea places already in both locations. 

“Then I remembered Wilmington,” she said. She and her family visited last year for vacation. “I noticed there weren’t many boba shops.” 

Six months ago, Gao and her family made the move. 

Originally, she hoped to open in a spot with more foot traffic, such as downtown or near the university, but had a hard time finding a space for her concept. That will be where the second Boba Tea Factory goes, she assured. 

“We want to expand there,” Gao said. “It has more young kids, more students, is more modern.”

She turned a boba tea ever so delicately in its plastic cup, sealed in a machine on site. Each cup is topped with cellophane, to prevent the drink from spilling as Gao turns it to mix, the chewy pearls dotting the cup. 

Grace Gao turns a watermelon fruit tea made with fresh puree and juice concentrate, as well as as jasmine green tea. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

One of 30 drinks are offered and can be custom ordered to the customer’s preferred sweetness — 30%, 50%, 70% or 100% — with real cane sugar. “Or you can do it without additional sugar,” she said. 

Some are made with jasmine green tea, others with black. There is also an uncaffeinated milk series — drinks concocted with whole milk but can be substituted with oat or almond milk. Mango or strawberry puree is mixed in as boba pearls bob throughout. 

A refrigerated prep table holds freshly sliced mango, watermelon, lemon and limes, along with crystal and mango pearls, and lychee, herb and coffee jelly squares. The additional treats are added to all teas.

A new prep table holds bins of Taiwanese and Thai tea leaves, as well as taro (a root vegetable) and matcha (high-grade green tea) powder.

“That’s the only powder we use,” Gao said.

Teas are brewed every four hours and boba pearls are replenished to ensure freshness, she said: “The boba pearls become hard if you don’t.”

All fruit teas — grapefruit-peach, strawberry, mango, watermelon, lychee — come in liquid form or as slushies. The slushies are blended with ice and topped with a cheese foam.

“Usually, only Asians order cheese foam,” Gao said. “It’s more authentic.”

It adds a salty, creamy punch to the frozen drink. Made of salt, cream, milk and a cheese powder, it tastes like briny cream cheese and cuts the acidity of the fruit and sweetness in each sip.

“It always tastes best within 30 minutes of ordering,” Gao said, referring especially to drinks that contain fresh milk.

The beverages are $7.25 each. Boba Tea Factory is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Boba tapioca pearls are made from cassava, a starchy root vegetable, and added to bubble tea for a pop of sweetness. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Cheese foam has long been an Asian treat but Gao said it’s catching on in America and is topped on the fruit slushies. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A machine ensures each cup is tightly sealed in order to mix each drink thoroughly without spillage. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Grace Gao, owner of The Boba Tea Factory, replenishes teas after a busy weekend. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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