Bubble tea shop opens amidst pandemic

By Krishnan Collins
Delta Digital News Service

JONESBORO- While some businesses struggle to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, a specialty shop serving bubble tea opened in August and business boomed from day one. 

   Tucked away in a suite of stores at 3800 S. Caraway Road over the I-555 bridge sits Bubblee, a shop started by owner Elna June, that serves bubble tea. Bubble tea is also sometimes referred to as boba. 

Chloe Barker crafts Bubblee’s best seller, brown sugar milk tea. Krishnan Collins/DDNS

   Bubble tea’s name comes from the chewy tapioca balls that sit on the bottom of every cup of boba. The tea surrounding the tapioca comes in a variety of flavors ranging from the traditional just plain milk tea to even more exciting flavors like brown sugar milk tea, taro milk tea and many more.

   “I have been watching what has been missing in Jonesboro,” June said.

“I love bubble tea. When I was in the Philippines and in Asia, everyday when I would go out with my managers, we would usually get bubble tea. That had been a staple for like 10 years ago there. It’s never really been here. I mean we have them in the big cities like LA and New York.”

Instant success

   June moved to the United States around six to seven years ago from the Philippines. Although she has other businesses overseas in Asia, Bubblee marks her first business in the United States. 

   June’s friends in the Philippines opened bubble tea shops of their own and they flourished, so June conversed with them to see how to best start her bubble tea shop in the States. 

   “I did my research,” June said. “I did test market research here and the response was overwhelming. I didn’t expect it because I thought people from Jonesboro didn’t know what it is. But they do.”

   June started a website and tested out a delivery system at the end of August. Bubblee received so many orders the store had to move orders from one day to another just to be able to fulfill those requests. After the impressive test run with delivery, the shop opened its brick and mortar store Sept. 21. 

   Opening during a pandemic did not phase June. 

   “I don’t really consider it as the time of having the pandemic,” June said. “I always go by numbers. I’m a numbers girl. Numbers never lie. I watched my research, I saw how people reacted and I have data. So, I decided, ‘Hey, it is a good time. People are responding, so why not?’” 

Crafting the culture

   Social media played a big part in spreading Bubblee’s brand. June said without spending a single dollar, she sent out a post saying bubble tea is coming to Jonesboro and the post reached 24,000 people in Jonesboro alone. 

   June said one of the biggest challenges in opening the store came in the same form of challenges she faced in her businesses in the Philippines: That is finding the right people to work at the store with her. 

   “Finding people who are in the same culture,” June said. “We want fun, we want Bubblee. You know, that’s our name. It’s hard to find people who always want to come to work happy, enjoying life. That’s definitely the biggest challenge is finding the right people. Once you find the key people, your business can go on.”

   One of those key people June found, Chloe Barker, played an integral part in getting the store going. 

   One of the first to inquire about the job, Barker contacted June as soon as she saw a job offer. Barker worked in the food industry at Skinny J’s and at The Parsonage but decided she wanted to get out of the food industry and transition to the drink industry. 

   June wanted Barker to work for the store because of how tight knit the Jonesboro community is and Barker fits the bill perfectly: she was born and raised in Jonesboro. 

   “The first question I asked (Barker) was, ‘Are you local?’” June said. 

   Barker knew what bubble tea was before she worked at Bubblee and now she gets to experience the joy of watching new customers try boba for the first time. 

   “They never have experienced anything like that before,” Barker said. “My favorite is to interview the men. They’re like, ‘What’s a boba?’ I get to watch their reaction as they try it and they’re amazed and overwhelmed with what they expected to what they got. It’s just really happy, it makes me happy.”

Destination location

   June said sales have been great so far and called Bubblee a destination location. Since the store is tucked away on South Caraway, the store isn’t always easy to see. Customers come to the store because they know it’s there. 

   “Because we’re fairly new, we have about 70% new customers but about 30% returning all the time,” June said. “So 30% is a high number for returning customers for a new business.”

   One of those returning customers, Michaela Partridge, said she has been a bubble tea fan since the first time she tried it when she was 17. However, growing up in the small town of Sheridan made it hard for her to find bubble tea.

   Since coming to Jonesboro as a college student, Partridge found bubble tea easier and originally purchased her bubble tea from Chin Chin Express on East Johnson. Once she found out about Bubblee and its wide variety of options, she decided to try it.  

   “The people there are really nice and they make all of the drinks to order,” Partridge said. “You can customize however much boba you want, how sweet you want it, that kind of stuff, which I really like.”

   The first drink Partridge ever bought was the winter melon tea and said her first reaction to the tea was that it tasted exactly like Christmas. 

   Partridge goes to Bubblee about once a week, sometimes twice a week if it’s been a bad week and she needs a pick me up. 

   “I keep going because the prices really aren’t that bad,” Partridge said. “It’s really decent prices, there’s two different sizes and there’s all different kinds of flavors. They even have the popping boba, which I recently tried and I really love. It’s hard to find that at other boba places in town.” 

   Partridge said the only thing she thinks Bubblee could improve on is sometimes it takes a long time to get an order. However, she said she understands because they are new and really popular, it makes sense orders might take a little longer to be prepared. 

A sense of home

   Bubble tea represents a niche product and for June this resonates with a diverse group of people around Jonesboro. 

   “It provides a sense of being for some people that are implants, that have been implanted in Jonesboro,” June said. “Believe it or not, yes, Jonesboro is a small town, but it’s growing and not because people are having babies, but because people are being implanted into the community from different cultures, different backgrounds and different countries.”

   June said the Asian community has grown a lot in Jonesboro. When she moved to Jonesboro around six years ago, she said she only knew around 10 Filipino families and now she knows over 100. The owner also mentioned how Asian students in the community come to Bubblee and get a piece of home.

Expansion plans

   June holds plans to expand to a second location where the store will gain customers as people simply walk by the storefront. This changes Bubblee from a destination location to a location where casuals can buy bubble tea as well. 

   By December, June wants to have her location open on Main Street. 

   “Over here we’re a destination; over there we will not be a destination branch,” June said. “It will be a visible branch where people walk and say, ‘Hey, I want to stop there.’ In marketing they call the concept clustering. So I think I am clustered very well if we are on Main Street.”

The rich brown sugar milk tea

   Brown sugar milk tea reigns supreme on the menu as the most popular item. Brown sugar milk tea started in Taiwan and June found a way to bring that authentic Taiwanese taste to Jonesboro. 

   “In Taiwan people would line up all the way down the street, like hundreds of people, to have a brown sugar milk tea,” June said. “So I found a supplier who is from Taiwan and they’ve supplied us with all of our ingredients to make that very famous brown sugar milk tea.”

   Whether someone moved to Jonesboro from a bigger city around the world or someone came to Jonesboro from a small Arkansas town, Bubblee finds its way into the hearts of customers all around the tightly knit community of Jonesboro. 

   “I think it’s really cool because Jonesboro for me is a bigger town,” Partridge said. “The town I grew up in has like 500 people and I had to drive 30 minutes to go to school. It always felt weird there weren’t more options for bubble tea and then Bubblee opened and I fell in love with it. I really am happy we now have another option. It feels like it’s a little more inclusive.”

Note: Feature photo by Krishnan Collins

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