WILMINGTON — Grace Gao has been operating her new tea shop for just over a week in the port city. Already it’s getting praise from customers, even though it’s 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 prepares it with fresh Taiwanese tea leaves, added condensed milk, and tapioca pearls floating from the bottom.
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“Facebook,” replied one customer. “Everybody talks about it.”
Four or five customers came to The Boba Tea Factory just before noon on Monday. Gao was coming off a weekend of 115 customers a day, she said – so a slower morning gave her time to restock.
“All of my customers who come here — like 80% or 90% — post about my store on social media,” she said.
Crisp white subway tiles and a mural of lush foliage are an inviting respite from the old green and yellow subway walls once located in Suite 20 at 800 Shipyard Blvd. All leftover baked bread and sliced cold cuts have been replaced with flavors of fresh fruit and tea.
Containers of fruit concentrate — mango, watermelon, blueberry, strawberry — are placed under urns of black and green tea with jasmine. Nearby are boba tapioca pearls, made from cassava starch, a root vegetable from South America. Gao orders all the ingredients from a distributor in Taiwan.
“Our boba tea is authentic,” she said.
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 that there are teahouses in almost every corner from New York.
Familiar with his request, Gao moved to the Big Apple from China 17 years ago. Her family – especially her siblings – run Japanese restaurants, but she used to work in a bank.
“I was tired 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 quit banking. She wanted to spend more time with her son but also find a career she could enjoy.
“I came to the United States for the American dream,” Gao said. “I wanted to work for myself but not in a restaurant.”
Gao decided to apprentice with a friend in Pennsylvania to see how she ran her own boba tea shop. His popularity was high – unsurprisingly for Gao.
“Boba tea has always been a social drink,” she said – a happy drink. “In Asia, you give it to someone when they pass a test or do a good job.”
As Gao considered moving closer to her family — Texas or Oklahoma — to open The Boba Tea Factory, she also noticed that there were already plenty of boba tea places in both places.
“Then I remembered Wilmington,” she said. She and her family visited last year for a vacation. “I noticed there weren’t many boba shops.”
Six months ago, Gao and her family moved.
Originally, she hoped to open somewhere with more foot traffic, like downtown or near the university, but struggled to find a space for her concept. This will be where the second Boba Tea Factory will go, she assured.
“We want to grow there,” Gao said. “There are more young children, more students, it’s more modern.”
She swirled a boba tea very gently in her plastic cup, sealed in a machine on site. Each cup is lined with cellophane, to prevent the drink from spilling when Gao spins it around to mix it, the fluffy beads dotting the cup.
One of 30 beverages is 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 extra sugar,” she said.
Some are made with jasmine green tea, others with black tea. There is also a series of caffeine-free milks – drinks made with whole milk but can be replaced with oat or almond milk. Mango or strawberry puree is mixed in the form of boba pearls.
A chilled prep table contains freshly sliced mango, watermelon, lemon, and limes, as well as crystal and mango pearls, and squares of lychee, herb, and coffee jelly. Extra sweets are added to all teas.
A new prep table holds tubs of Taiwanese and Thai tea leaves, as well as taro (a root vegetable) and matcha (high-grade green tea) powder.
“It’s the only powder we use,” Gao said.
The teas are steeped every four hours and the boba pearls are reconstituted to ensure freshness, she said: “The boba pearls get hard if you don’t.”
All fruit teas – grapefruit-peach, strawberry, mango, watermelon, lychee – come in liquid or slip form. The slushies are mixed with ice cream and covered with a cheese mousse.
“Usually only Asians order cheese mousse,” Gao said. “It’s more authentic.”
It adds a salty, creamy punch to the frozen drink. Made with salt, cream, milk and a cheese powder, it tastes like salty cream cheese and cuts the tartness of the fruit and sweetness in every sip.
“It always tastes best within 30 minutes of ordering it,” Gao said, referring in particular to drinks containing fresh milk.
Drinks are $7.25 each. Boba Tea Factory is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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