Boba shortage has Long Beach tea shops anxiously awaiting shipments of tapioca balls

Loose Leaf Tea on the Downtown Long Beach Promenade has been serving milk teas and other boba inspired drinks for almost three years, but like seemingly every boba purveyor in the country, the shop is bracing for a potential shortage of the black tapioca balls that cluster at the bottom of their drinks.

The shop uses about 30 six-pound bags of tapioca pearls on a weekly basis and gets shipments about once per week. Right now, the shop has about a one-week supply, according to a manager who identified herself as Maria R.

“It’s always scary because we do get our boxes of supplies but we don’t know if we’re always going to get our shipments on time,” she said.

The shop is also running out of tea and its signature printed cups, leaving them to have to place stickers by hand on each order. Maria attributed it in part to the backlog of ships at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Mario Cordero, the executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said that there are a number of factors feeding into the backlog but likely the largest one is the growing 24/7 shopping culture that has been enabled by online retailers like Amazon. The more people order, the more shipping containers the port processes.

The Long Beach port saw a 74% increase of inbound containers last month compared to March 2020 and the resulting backlog has about 24 ships at anchor outside of the Long Beach harbor.

Those ships are indicative of a growing economy, something that could last into the summer, Cordero said. Combined with the Los Angeles port, Cordero said over 17 million containers were processed last year.

“Whether it’s boba, a dishwasher or outside furniture, these times have certainly shown a willingness for consumers to spend,” Cordero said.

Anxiety of the looming boba shortage was sparked by an Instagram post earlier this month by the Boba Guys, a chain of drink shops co-founded by Andrew Chau and Bin Chen. The duo also helped found the US Boba Company in Hayward that supplies domestically made boba balls.

The chain recently opened a location at the 2nd and PCH shopping district in southeast Long Beach. A representative from Boba Guys did not respond to a request for comment.

In the video posted April 8, Chau and Chen and David Fan from Fanale Drinks, who started the boba factory in Northern California, blamed the shortage on the pandemic’s effect on global supply chain.

While the boba balls are made in California it depends on tapioca starch from the cassava plant, which is native to countries in southeast Asia like Thailand. Chau said the company is trying to seek other means of importing the tapioca starch, but added that shortage could last about four to five months for stores that depend on their company for supplies.

Other suppliers in Taiwan have been handcuffed by a drought. But whether the tapioca balls are domestically made or imported they ultimately have to pass through the ports.

“It does mean that boba is going to be out and it’s going to be weird for a lot of us who run boba shops, including our name Boba Guys, it is going to be awkward,” Chau said in the video.

A spreading fear of “Bobageddon” has put pressure on employees at Loose Leaf and other tea houses as customers come in looking for specific flavors and have increasingly found only disappointment.

“One lady had four drinks and hers was the fourth one on the list and we ran out of her flavor so she cancelled the whole order,” said Alex, the owner of Boba Tea House on Willow Street just west of the 710 Freeway.

In an interview Wednesday, he said that his father was in Los Angeles in search of supplies for the tea shop and said that some suppliers are out of 80% of flavors. Alex said he noticed the boba shortage about a month or two ago but the effect on sales has been minimal, so far. He doesn’t expect to run out of boba anytime soon and is hopeful it won’t get to that point.

“It’s not like the at the start of the pandemic,” he said. “Then I couldn’t find sugar or milk and it took an extra hour out of our day to go shopping. I was like ‘How are we going to make drinks?’”

But not all shops are feeling the tapioca pinch.

A manager at Cha for Tea near Cal State Long Beach said that they hadn’t received word of a shortage from their producer in Taiwan, but the shop is running low on honey.

The situation at the port is is getting a little better, however, Cordero said. The two dozen vessels in the floating outside the harbor is better than the roughly 40 that were floating off the coast a few months ago. He estimated it could take a few weeks to process the ships currently floating in the harbor.

Long Beach tea shops are hopeful that at least one of them have tapioca balls on board.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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