Flourishing bubble tea landscape near UC Berkeley raises concerns from students

Nirvana Ellaboudy/Staff

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In the last three years, at least 10 different boba, or bubble tea, shops have opened near the UC Berkeley campus — yet the exponential rise of these popular, sweetened teas has elicited a slew of controversy from students and community members.

There are at least 16 bubble tea shops within a one-block radius of the UC Berkeley campus, the vast majority of which are located in Southside. Expand the search to a two-block radius, and students have more than 22 bubble tea shops to choose from, including Feng Cha Teahouse, YiFang Taiwan Fruit Tea and, most recently, Taiwan Professional Tea.

As a result, even well-established bubble tea chains such as RareTea have felt the tightening effects of increased competition near campus, said Nehemiah Dang, general manager of RareTea on Telegraph Avenue.

According to Dang, a common misconception is that boba shops are “lucrative” and “simple” to open. This might be why bubble tea shops are rapidly coming and going, Dang added.

“People think that if they put together a bubble tea store, their sales will just flourish, but it actually goes a lot further than that — something I think a lot of people don’t realize,” Dang said.

Yet many bubble tea shops that have opened in recent years have maintained steady business, even in light of Berkeley’s sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Implemented in 2015, the tax levies a 1 cent tax on distributors per each fluid ounce of sugar-sweetened beverage sold. This likely includes bubble tea drinks laden with syrups and other sweeteners, according to Kristine Madsen, faculty director at the Berkeley Food Institute.

“One of the reasons we tax sugar-sweetened beverages now is that it’s the one product we know has zero nutritional value — it’s just water, sugar and some flavoring,” Madsen said. “Boba … is exactly the same as soda. It’s not any better for you and it’s something that’s fine every once in a while, but certainly isn’t what we’d hope students are spending their money on.”

Loan Kim, an associate professor of nutritional science at Pepperdine University who was involved in a 2016 study regarding the nutritional value of boba, said in an email that consuming excess calories, such as drinking bubble tea regularly, can result in increased sugar and caloric intake, promoting anabolism and weight gain. She recommended that avid bubble tea drinkers opt for unsweetened tea with no milk and minimal add-ins.

The proliferation of bubble tea shops near campus may contribute to campus food insecurity, said campus senior and Berkeley Student Food Collective staff member Teddy Lake, but it’s not because of bubble tea’s lackluster nutritional value.

“For low-income students, boba is a luxury,” Lake said. “The problem isn’t so much that low-income students are buying boba — it’s that boba has the potential to push out more affordable eateries because somewhere, hundreds of students are still consuming boba regardless of the price barrier.”

Though the bubble tea landscape has flourished near campus in recent years, students and community members have pointed out a glaring lack of affordable grocery stores near campus. Since the recent closure of Sam’s Market on Telegraph Avenue, the only grocery store near campus that sells fresh produce is the Berkeley Student Food Collective.

Lake said students will often refer to their grocery store run as a “commute” — the trek from Sproul Plaza to Trader Joe’s on University Avenue is one mile, and the walk to Safeway on College Avenue is more than 1.6 miles. Yet these are the closest full-scale grocery stores accessible to students.

“Most families in Berkeley have kids and some kind of vehicle that allows them to mitigate the problem of sparsely spread out grocery stores,” Lake said. “For students, that access isn’t as readily available.”

The problem continues to persist because bubble tea shops are not only profitable but also yield a quick profit, as they do not take long to set up, Lake said. This, in turn, means that landlords spend less time not making a profit off a vacant storefront.

Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said grocery stores traditionally have a tight profit margin — an unideal reality on Southside, where the business landscape is competitive and rent is high. He added that Southside buildings generally lack the space needed to accommodate a full-scale grocery store such as Trader Joe’s.

When a business closes, it is entirely up to the property owner to decide which business will take its place, according to Baker. He added that, in recent years, Southside has predominantly seen increases in fast-casual dining and bubble tea shops.

Campus sophomore Katie Lin said though she appreciates the variety of bubble tea shops, she wishes that grocery stores were closer to campus. A walk to Trader Joe’s costs Lin 20 minutes — and the trek to Safeway is even longer. She added that if there were fewer boba shops near campus, there might be more space for smaller grocery stores.

According to Lake, when there are lines out the door for new bubble tea shops, it signals to landlords that boba is profitable and in-demand. She added that students can play a role in limiting the expansion of boba shops by picking one or two favorites and “sticking to that.”

“Boba displaces other businesses that might better serve low-income communities,” Lake said. “Last I checked, there are 16 boba shops within a one-mile radius of campus — and that was a conservative account. With that number in mind, what could we do with 12 of those storefronts, or even just 10?”

Contact Amber Tang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.