British Columbia

Big chains pour into Vancouver's bubble tea scene with trendy stir-fried brown sugar pearls

Xing Fu Tang's trendy drink is latest overseas trend making waves and putting pressure on local, independent stores.

Xing Fu Tang's trendy drink is latest overseas trend making waves

Nelson Lam, left, stands next to one of the cooks at Xing Fu Tang in Vancouver as he stir-fries pearls with brown sugar. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

New overseas chains pouring into Metro Vancouver have turned the traditionally mom-and-pop bubble tea scene into a suddenly crowded one.

Popular chains from Taiwan have staked claims in Vancouver and Richmond over the past six months, bringing with them big names and trends that have local store owners trying to keep up with the competition.

Among them is Xing Fu Tang, which made its Canadian debut two weeks ago with lineups out the door every day since it opened on Cambie Street.

Bubble tea lovers are clamouring to try its Instagram-worthy stir-fried brown sugar pearl milk.

Unlike typical bubble tea, the tapioca pearls are toasted with caramelized sugar and topped with real milk, and the drink doesn't contain tea.

A cook at Xin Fu Tang toasts brown sugar over a hot wok before mixing in tapioca pearls. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

'Starbucks of bubble tea'

Nelson Lam, the chain's regional manager says the distinctive, signature drink sets it apart from the rest of the market. And the company plans to channel the drink's appeal into a rapid expansion of the chain.

"Our goal basically is to become like the Starbucks of bubble tea," Lam said.

Aspirations like that have local bubble tea cafe owners scrambling to keep up.

But it won't be easy.  Xin Fu Tang's signature drink is made by a team. At the Cambie store, a trained cook stands in the centre of the cafe, roasting brown sugar imported from Taiwan with tapioca pearls in a hot wok until they're chewy and caramelized.

Then, a uniformed and latex-glove-wearing team pours additional elements into the branded cups.

Alicia Wu and Ricky Chang opened Peanut's at the Richmond Public Market in 1994. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

Family owned and operated

It's a far cry from traditional storefronts like Peanut's at the Richmond Public Market where Alicia Wu and her husband have run their small stall since 1994.

Wu said she's taken notice of the chains — and she's worried.

"I think during those 24 years, you can see lots of shops open and close, but right now, these couple of years there's a big change ... lots of people they bring the chain store here," she said.

Still, she's trying to remain positive by relying on the clientele she's built up and the massive variety in her menu.

In addition to serving bubble tea, Alicia Wu also sells freshly made wheel cakes - a Taiwanese egg-based pastry filled with ingredients such as red bean or cream. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

She's also kept her prices low — a smart move, according to food blogger Kirsty Ip, noting the competition sells for almost double the price. She also said Vancouver's bubble tea scene is "completely saturated."

Ip's advice to anyone considering opening a cafe is to think through the business plan carefully and find a way to differentiate.

Bubble tea goes vegan

That's what Katrina Louie and her partner, who operate Buns and Boba on East Broadway, are hoping they've done.

Instead of looking to Taiwan, Louie says they got their inspiration stateside when they opened earlier this summer.

"I travel a lot to San Francisco and L.A. and their trend [for bubble tea] ... is heading toward lots of vegan options," she said.

Katrina Louie's Buns and Boba cafe has a modern and minimalist feel to reflect its West Coast roots. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

To that effect, she's offering house-made oat and nut milks in her all drinks as well as frozen fruit and brewed teas rather than commonly-used powdered flavourings.

Cultural experience

Despite the growth of large chains, Louie believes there's enough demand to go around, given Vancouver's large Asian diaspora and the increasing popularity of bubble tea.

Meanwhile, at Xing Fu Tang, Lam insists its business model isn't focused on eliminating their competition.

Rather, he says the goal is to bring an authentic cultural experience to Canadians in order to widen the interest in bubble tea — so everyone is sipping.