Boba shops find enthusiastic fans in the Tri-Cities

Tri-Citians should be aware that there is a new wave of bobalicious goodness coming their way soon. Actually, it’s already here. But more is coming.

The region is experiencing an explosion of boba tea drinks.

Food trucks such as Bobablastic sell it. Pearl Tea at the Columbia Center mall thrives on it. The owners of Novel Coffee, Tea and Toast, say boba saved their business.

New places are opening within the next ninth months – Boba Lab on Clearwater in Kennewick, Taestea Boba on Keene Road in Richland, and JayDay Cafe and Boba at the new Edison Food Park.

We’re also starting to see already established restaurants and coffee shops adding boba tea to their menu.

“It’s going to be just like coffee: pretty much on every corner,” said Brandi Dunlap, the owner of Taestea Boba, which is scheduled to open in March.

 What is boba tea?

The owners of Pearl Tea at Columbia Center mall in Kennewick shifted their focus away from coffee to boba teas because of their intense popularity. (Photo by Jeff Morrow)

Boba tea is said to have originated in Taiwan in the 1980s.

According to, “boba” is the word for tapioca pearls, fresh fruits with juicy bits, or jellies that are mixed in the drinks.

A boba tea drink usually consists of black tea, milk, ice and the tapioca pearls (or substitute), all shaken together like a martini, and served with a wide straw so that the pearls can get sipped up from the bottom of the drink.

Fruit bubbles can be substitutes for the tapioca. These can explode in the mouth, turning them into popping pearls.

Jellies are usually coconut and are chewy.

“It’s definitely the boba topping that makes it popular,” said Katherine Moon, who manages Pearl Tea at the mall for her family. “It’s what sets the tea apart from other drinks.”

Growing market

According to Allied Market Research, the boba tea market boasted total revenues of $2.4 billion in 2019.

By 2027, that revenue should jump up to $4.3 billion.

Savvy entrepreneurs have taken notice.

Moon and her sister have been longtime bubble tea addicts, living in the Seattle area, where it can be found everywhere.

“We realized there was just not enough of it in the Tri-Cities,” said Moon, whose family switched gears to get into the boba business. “We originally opened up a coffee shop actually, and then added bubble tea to the menu as a side option. But we quickly realized that the bubble tea was just as, if not more, popular than the coffee.”

The family decided to sell the coffee shop and open a boba tea store.

“And I don’t think the market will get saturated,” Moon said. “The population in the Tri-Cities has been rapidly growing over the years and the more it does, the higher the demand will be, of course.”

Dunlap also has become a convert.

The single mother worked with a former boyfriend in his Boise boba shops. The two opened a store in Walla Walla to rave reviews.

“When we opened (Black Pearl Boba Tea) in Walla Walla, we had customers coming in from the Tri-Cities for it,” she said.

The relationship with the boyfriend didn’t last, but the affection for boba prompted Dunlap to bring a store to the Tri-Cities.

“There is really nothing you can compare boba tea to,” Dunlap said. “It has its own unique flavor. You can have more fun flavors with boba. You can do equal amounts of ingredients. I like tea. But you can have full sweetness, half sweet or quarter sweet in your drink.

“My drinks are all blended. I use a formula. But we also have flavors on the menu,” she said. “Honestly, just learning the drinks probably takes a week.”

Oscar Suarez and his wife, Lonnie, own Novel Coffee, Tea and Toast at 710 George Washington Way, Suite B-B, in Richland.

Suarez said when he and his wife bought the coffee shop from the previous owner, they learned the recipes of making boba teas and say they were one of the first stores in the area to serve boba.

At the time, it was located in the lobby of the Richland Public Library.

Then Covid-19 hit and threatened their livelihood. State mandates forced the shutdown of the library, making it impossible for them to operate.

So they moved to their current location near Howard Amon Park.

Suarez said boba saved them.

“Boba was 90% of our sales at that time,” Oscar said. “Boba 95% helped us survive.”

It’s still popular at his store, and he and his wife have figured out a way to combine boba with iced coffee.

“We have an iced drink called the Typewriter that has boba,” Suarez said. “It’s our most popular drink.”

Boba has done so well for Suarez that he and his wife are looking to add new shops, perhaps in east Pasco and Prosser.

 Who drinks boba?

 Apparently, all ages.

“The majority of customers might be of high school age or college,” Dunlap said. “But we’ve had doctors and attorneys come in (in Walla Walla) and thank us for having the shop. It’s literally anyone between 5 and 60 years old.”

Be forewarned, some boba drinks may have high sugar content.

“I usually have them as a treat,” Suarez said. “But I know many people who drink them every day, sometimes two a day.”

Moon suggests that first timers try a milk tea.

“Taro milk tea, and tiger milk tea (which is brown sugar milk tea) are our most popular drinks,” Moon said.

Dunlap offers something similar with brown sugar tea, which is popular.

But really, she said, you can’t go wrong with any of the drinks.

“The drink is really aesthetic, and when you drink it, you’re hooked,” she said.

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