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Battle heats up among Chinatown bubble tea shops
Sat, Sep 14 2013 12:46 [via Philly.com]

It's a sales battle that's being fought cup by cup, not for all the tea in China, but for tea in Chinatown. It began when Tea Talk opened on 10th Street, its glowing rainbow lights drawing a young crowd thirsty for exotic mixes of bubble tea, the cold summer drink that, despite its name, may contain neither bubbles nor tea.
Within a year, Tea Talk had a competitor, Tea Do, which opened two blocks south on 10th. Now a third shop, Tea Magic, has set up not fifty paces from Tea Do, commencing a three-way competition for customers seeking to sip the hip, Taiwan-born brew.

It wasn't part of a larger, neighborhood business strategy. "It just sort of happened," said Ping-Ho Lee, main-street manager at the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

Can one Chinatown street support three bubble-tea stores? Nobody knows. But a tea tempest is brewing, each shop aware of the others and trying to distinguish itself.

"There's nothing like
this in Chinatown," owner Kenny Poon said as he surveyed his Tea Do. "A Chinese Starbucks."

That is, customers don't come solely for guava, honey, pear or pomegranate bubble tea. They come for the contemporary Asian setting, to have a snack, to study, to hang with friends, to play Jenga or backgammon, or just to sit and relax.

The "Do" in Tea Do is pronounced "doe," as in deer, the complete phrase meaning
tea style or tea taste.

"I just got out of class," said Maggie Cheung, a 19-year-old biology major at Temple University who sat down at a table, popped open her laptop, and spread out her papers beside a cup of Japanese green milk tea. "It's spacious, and you can do homework."

Nearby, Christine Ng, a 25-year-old Drexel University graduate student, was reviewing her nursing studies on her laptop as she sipped tea.

"I like the drinks here - and they have WiFi," she said.
Bubble tea is always served in a clear plastic glass with a thick, often brightly colored straw punched through the lid. But the container is perhaps its only constant. There are as many names for bubble tea as there are recipes.

Pearl tea, tapioca tea, boba tea, milk tea, momi tea - all may or may not start with a serving of jasmine, black, or oolong. Sometimes the base is milk or soy, thickened with crushed ice and infused with fruits from lychee to pineapple to papaya.

The chewy "pearls" are small balls of tapioca or flavored gelatin that sink to the bottom of the cup. As many people spit them out as eat them. The bubbles - often few - are the whipped froth at the top.

Most drinks cost $4 or $5.
Tea, of course, has been around for millennia, in legend discovered by China Emperor Shen-Nung. Supposedly some tea leaves accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water, and he liked the taste.

Bubble tea is much newer, developed in Taiwan during the 1980s. It spread to Hong Kong, and then slowly made its way to Asian communities in the United States.

Now it's everywhere - and everywhere popular among young people, who make up most of the clientele at the shops in Chinatown.

The newest is Tea Magic, an art-deco-styled store where the techno music is so loud that it's hard to hear the cashier - and that's how people like it. The owner declined requests to discuss her business and the Chinatown tea war.

It was a different shop that opened the floodgates in late 2011. The shifting, sherbet-colored lights of Tea Talk became a beacon for people who jammed the store on Friday and Saturday nights.

"When it was just us, people knew us as the bubble-tea place," said manager Jackie Ruan.

Now, people don't know that Tea Talk was the original. And it's unclear if it would matter.

Tea Talk, near the Tuck Hing Co. grocery store and kitty-corner from the Chinese Christian Church, features an understated design and modest tables.

Down the street, Tea Do offers illuminated wall screens and lighted menu displays, and Tea Magic has a counter that glows in different colors.

"They have some high-class stuff," Ruan said.

Still, he isn't admitting defeat. Tea Talk draws a steady, mostly Vietnamese clientele. As college students return to Philadelphia for the fall semester, the store will get its share of customers.

"As other places opened, people go there, and if they don't like it they come back," he said.

Tea Do's Poon, no relation to popular chef Joseph Poon, said people who try his brew won't buy elsewhere.

He ran half a dozen businesses before hitting on the idea for Tea Do - then flew to Taiwan to learn the business. It suits him to, well, a T.

"This is one of the most successful businesses I've ever done," said Poon, who previously worked in real estate, restaurants, and cellphones, and is opening a new Chinatown lounge called Tango.

He's not worried about Tea Magic's arrival. Or that other tea vendors may follow.

"One thing about this tea shop, it has got quality," he said. "We're the busiest one."

© Kenny Poon 2010