Richmond tea shop owner battles boba backlog amid pandemic

boba shortage

A pandemic-related boba shortage is adding to what has been a year of challenges for local tea shop owner Gigi Jiang. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A pandemic-related nationwide boba shortage is adding to the challenges Richmond’s business owners have faced over the last year, now making it difficult for them to purchase those tapioca pearls that give bubble tea its name and unique flavor.

Gigi Jiang opened Gigi Tea Time in 2017. She said she studied for almost two years in Taiwan to learn how to make the traditional Taiwanese beverage.

“I went to Taiwan to learn how to make tea,” she said. “Even though [I] drink tea every day, I didn’t know that tea has so many flavors.”

Traditional Taiwanese milk tea or bubble tea was invented in the 1980s. It is typically mixed with tapioca or boba pearls, coffee jelly or lychee jelly to add that signature texture.

After years of work to make sure she was offering authentic products, Jiang said that business was consistently strong. But in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing local businesses like Gigi Tea Time on W. Broad Street to close.

“March 17 last year, we shut down the place. At that time, [I was] so scared. You don’t even know what to do,” Jiang said. “Before that, we [were] open seven days a week, all year long, never close.”

Tapioca pearls act as the “bubbles” in bubble tea. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

Even as 8News spoke with Jiang, several customers entered her shop, and she immediately knew their regular orders.

Jiang said that she tried to reopen in June 2020, stocking up on PPE. However, with ongoing protests outside her business along W. Broad Street, she said she didn’t feel safe.

“The protests were happening here, not far from here,” Jiang said. “That’s why I got scared.”

When she made the decision to reopen Gigi Tea Time in August, she did so with reduced hours. Now, Jiang’s husband comes in and helps out on weekends so she won’t be alone.

But Jiang said that business has been slow.

“Life changed, actually,” she said. “This is the whole thing.”

Gigi Tea Time opened in Richmond in 2017. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

More than a year after she first closed the doors of Gigi Tea Time, Jiang is facing a new challenge: a nationwide boba shortage brought on by the pandemic. The backlog on tapioca pearls in the U.S. is due to shipping issues — cargo ships delayed, rather than reaching American ports.

Instead of being able to order boba in bulk, Jiang said that she’s only able to order small amounts, and what she can get her hands on costs more.

“I need to think more long [term] because if I don’t buy now, when I need it, I may not have it, and a lot of stuff right now, I don’t have it,” Jiang said.

At the end of 2020, Jiang said the price of boba increased. That was followed by another price increase in April 2021.

“Spend more money, but less customers,” Jiang said. “We’re trying to hang here because a lot of customers, they are really supportive, like nice, nice customers. That is why we still try to [keep] going.”

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