Across South Florida, numerous bubble tea shops are popping up, becoming a favored hangout spot for teens and young adults. This surge in popularity is known as “bobamania.”
Commonly referred to as “boba shops,” they offer various tea flavors ranging from milk to fruit-based, with a unique twist; the drink contains chewy tapioca pearls, known as “boba.”
Bubble Tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s by a tea shop owner who added these pearls to iced tea to make traditional tea more fun and appealing. The drink eventually spread through Asia and made its way to the United States in the 1990s. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that boba shops started popping up in South Florida. Today, around 95 cafes and restaurants in the region are dedicated to selling boba.
However, as the popularity of boba shops in South Florida grows, the Asian population in the region remains relatively low. Bubble tea has quickly assimilated into South Florida’s predominantly white and Hispanic communities in recent years, with some businesses finding themselves even competing with big names in the beverage industry such as Starbucks.
One significant factor impacting bubble tea’s popularity and assimilation in South Florida is its unique taste. Bubble Tea’s unique combination of sweet and chewy tapioca pearls with a variety of tea and milk flavors appeals to teens, who gather in large numbers in bubble tea shops such as Leaf House on Sheridan Street.
“The taste, it’s odd, there’s like food in the drink,” explained a 17-year-old customer visiting Leaf House in Cooper City. “It’s not normal, so people are discovering it and liking it.”
However, tapioca isn’t the only distinctive feature of boba attracting teens. Bubble tea also has a unique set of flavors and a variety of toppings.
“There are so many flavors, so many add-ons. Like you can choose the type of boba toppings,” the customer explained.
Similarly, the manager of Leaf House, Yang He, agrees that unique flavors play a part in the hype associated with bubble tea.
“I think people are just looking for a better alternative to the traditional cup of coffee or can of soda,” He explains. “Having boba at the bottom of the drink definitely helps.”
As more South Floridians discover bubble tea in their local communities, they invite their friends and family to come along with them, attracting more people to the drink due to how most boba places serve as a social gathering place with a fun and relaxed atmosphere.
“A lot of my friends and family members were really into it, so I was like, let me try it,” said one 12-year-old customer at Litchi Snow Ice in Pembroke Pines.
The customer admits that she visits various boba shops once or twice a month.
“I just like the environment that people here give; also, the drinks are really good,” she explained.
A 17-year-old customer at Boba & Chill in Pembroke Pines has a similar experience to how she came to love boba.
“I think I got introduced to it by my sister [be]cause she started drinking it, and then she told me about it, and I tried it,” she explained.
The 17-year-old frequently visits boba places about once or twice a week.
“The drinks are really good, and I like fruity drinks,” she says.
Another customer at Boba & Chill, a 29-year-old veteran boba drinker, admits her fascination with boba was stemmed from the social atmosphere boba shops offered.
“When you first get into it [bubble tea] that’s what draws you in,” she explained. “Most [boba] stores I’ve been to have some sort of hangout piece, such as games.”
It also helps that most boba shops are often easily accessible for teens by being located inside most communities around South Florida, making it convenient for teens without a car or license to stop in for a drink or hang out.
Due to these bubble tea shops being popular social gathering places, people often post about getting boba on their social media, which exposes other teens who they might be following to those places.
Most teens have admitted to posting about boba on social media, and even He, the manager of Leaf House, proposed that social media could be a reason, amongst others, for boba’s popularity.
“It could be social media; it could be many other things,” explains He.
On TikTok alone, countless posts with thousands of likes appear when simply searching “South Florida boba.” Users post aesthetically pleasing videos of bubble tea shops that generate a lot of interest among the South Floridian community.
One TikTok posted by bite4bite about Leafy, a Vietnamese restaurant in Pembroke Pines that also sells boba showed the many fun decorations, bright colors, and playful graphics found in the restaurant. The video generated two-hundred thousand views, more than forty thousand likes, and around a thousand comments by users sharing their excitement about how cute the place is.
“I can’t believe something this cute is so close to me!” the user shared in the video.
Another interesting TikTok posted by user, thepixelbar, about a pokemon inspired bubble tea shop located in Plantation went viral. It amassed over 52,000 likes, over 400,000 views, and over 4000 comments by people expressing their desire to check the place out. The user also mentioned some of the unique pokemon inspired boba drinks that caught many commenters’ interest.
Demand for more bubble tea stores is also on the rise. Users on social media and Yelp often complain about a lot of boba places being too far away. People want more options for bubble tea spots near their community and as a result, more businesses are opening.
Will bubble tea shops replace Starbucks? There’s a mixed response from shop owners about this.
Some owners, such as Poke, I love U‘s 33-year-old Claire Manlika, believe that bubble tea has already replaced Starbucks. The store is in Davie.
“The drink is more fun [than the ones at Starbucks],” she reasons. “Usually they [people] go to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts and get the same thing, but [boba] is more than a drink; it also combines food (tapioca).”
However, He and many other customers believe boba isn’t replacing Starbucks. He says that while boba shops are becoming a good alternative for Starbucks, it’s not entirely replacing the multinational chain. Both customers and He believe that Starbucks and boba shops offer different experiences and product offerings catering to different customer preferences.
“Both can live side by side,” he explains. “People will keep drinking their coffee, and tea enthusiasts will keep enjoying their teas. At the end of the day… people will drink what they want; people enjoy having options.”
Madison Fluitt, the manager at Boba and Chill, believes that rather than bubble tea replacing Starbucks, bubble tea shops will become competitors.
“I don’t think [Starbucks] would replace it, but would be a huge competitor. Mainly, because bubble tea shops focus on tea, and Starbucks and coffee shops focus on coffee,” she explained.
Fluitt goes on to mention that Starbucks has already responded to the popularity of bubble tea flavors and picked up on trends that are popular in the East such as their addition of matcha to their menu.
“Starbucks picked up on the trend of matcha from [Asia],” Fluitt explained.
Fluitt also mentioned that bubble tea is customizable.
“You can have any kind of drink,” Fluitt explained.
So, while Starbucks and boba shops are not direct competitors, they do operate in the same general space of selling beverages and food items. And they compete for consumers’ attention and spending.
In 2021, Leah Prinz explained in an article in the Mac Weekly that boba shop owners don’t see Starbucks as a threat, because they focus on tea.
While it is unlikely that bubble tea shops will replace Starbucks, the future of boba still seems promising as the drink’s popularity continues to grow and evolve into the South Florida beverage scene. However, because of the drink’s popularity, He and many believe that more bubble tea shops are opening in South Florida and the market is oversaturated. This raises a huge concern for boba shop owners such as He.
“Since we have opened, we have witnessed many bubble tea shops close,” He said. “BHut many more have opened.”