Bee & Tea bets big on the popularity of boba tea | Bleader

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bee & Tea bets big on the popularity of boba tea

Posted By on 09.04.14 at 08:30 AM

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All of the bao.
When it comes to franchising, frozen yogurt has proven to be a pretty safe bet. It's cold, it's delicious, and you can top it with shit like gummy bears and crushed-up Heath bars and still not feel like you're doing something as bad as eating ice cream. And it contains probiotics, which Jamie Lee Curtis says are good for our butts. Forever Yogurt, the brightly colored, serve-yourself yogurt franchise started in 2010 by young entrepreneur (and former professional poker player) Mandy Calara, has been a runaway success. In fact, it's run all the way from Chicago to Panama and China. Now Calara has another vision he wants people—investors and customers alike—to buy into: boba tea and bao shops. Enter Bee & Tea, which opened in Wicker Park in July and already has three more locations "coming soon" to Chicago.

"Bee & Tea is on a mission to make boba tea mainstream," says the brand's website. It continues, "Bee & Tea is projected to become a frontrunner in this niche market quickly with strong branding and franchising opportunities." Now, I have about as much business savvy as a high schooler selling weed out of his locker, but I'm dubious that this concept has quite the amount of populist potential as yogurt shops. I'm doubly dubious after visiting the flagship store.

Just in case you're not familiar with boba (or "bubble") tea, it's a Taiwanese drink that's made with either green or black tea and/or milk or a milk substitute. And resting at the bottom of each plastic cup of the stuff, you'll find boogery balls of tapioca patiently waiting to shoot up an extrawide straw and down your throat. (If it sounds like I have an aversion to boba tea, I really don't—but, no, I wouldn't go out of my way for it.) Forever Yogurt's empire was built on options, and Bee & Tea is following that lead. From a lengthy checklist, you select a size, a base (green or black, milk or none), level of sweetness, up to three flavors (from a list of 24, which seems like it could go horribly wrong really easily), and toppings (or, rather, bottomings). The honey-flavored tapioca boba is the signature topping, hence the "bee" in the name. I went with a perfectly pleasant lightly sweetened jasmine-flavored milk tea with honey boba. Yogurt smoothies are another option, if you're into smoothies.

What lies within the mushroom-quinoa bao

And then there are the buns. I ordered all six varieties, to go, to feed two people. "Will that be enough food," I asked the cashier, who told me they're basically the size of tacos, so, in theory, three each should have been plenty. Really, they weren't as substantial as tacos, even though the fillings were folded between bao, which seems more substantial than a tortilla. The little buns weren't terribly well filled, which is a shame because the meat fillings were good enough. Three of them lean Asian—the salty-sweet chicken teriyaki, the BBQ pulled pork with a few strands of a sesame-oil-rich cabbage slaw, and a yogurty, if not terribly flavorful Indian butter chicken—but the best was the Mexican-esque ground beef chorizo, with briny bits of what tasted like pimento. The meat-free fillings were uniformly sad. A mushroom-quinoa mix, a smear of mush topped with some wilted lettuce, hardly registered, and the salt-and-pepper tofu had only a single rectangle of the stuff, not much larger than a Sanford pink pencil eraser. I can say it was spicier than a pencil eraser.

Bee & Tea, 1843 W. North, 773-270-4196, beeteashop.com

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