East Village Bubble Tea Shops Worry 16 oz. Cups Will Be a Bust

By Jess Wisloski and Paul Lomax  on August 22, 2012 10:30am

EAST VILLAGE — Could one law burst the bubble of a more than decade-old drink craze?

That's what many purveyors of tourist-friendly bubble tea shops are wondering. With only a month before the Board of Health votes on a law that would ban the sale of sugary drinks that are 16 ounces or larger, bubble tea cafes and their tapioca-loving customers are fretting what may become of the businesses.

"We have a lot of people from all over who come in for bubble tea, locals, students and tourists," said Lu Chuang, 22, who works as a server at TKettle on Saint Mark's Place. Chuang, who is from Taiwan, where the jelly-ball filled tea hails from, guessed that Mayor Bloomberg's initiative would hit them hard.

"If this law goes through, then our business will be really badly affected," she said.

And Gn Zhan, 25, who was visiting from Taiwan and sipping on a 24-ounce mango yogurt bubble tea with tapioca pearls at TKettle on Saturday, said the move would be disappointing.

"I would be really upset and sad if this happens," he said. "Back home, the large size [24 ounces] is the original size that our tea is served in."

Chuang said she didn't think cutting back the sizes of the cups would improve anyone's health. "All my friends back home drink bubble tea every day," she said. "We don't have health, weight or obesity problems because I believe we have a healthier diet."

In 1999, the East Village got its first taste of bubble tea at Saint's Alp Teahouse on Third Avenue. Now, the area is packed with cafes selling the sweetened, milky iced teas.

Winn O'Donnell, 29, owner of ThirsTea on West 10th Street and Avenue A, admitted that the idea of a sugary drink ban has him "a little worried" about his business.

"It's absurd that people can buy drugs like 'salvia,' and pepper spray in this city but they can't order a large bubble tea," he said. "I don't want my customers to go to jail just because they ordered a large bubble tea on their lunch breaks," he joked.

ThirsTea, like many counterparts, also serves baked goods, and traditional hot drinks, like leaf tea, as well.

Lillian Chen, 30, manager of Saint's Alp Teahouse — the grandfather of the city's bubble tea shops, which claims to have first created the Americanized term 'bubble tea' (formerly boba) — said in her opinion, their business won't be changed by the law, if it passes.

"Obviously we don't like it, but personally I think our business won't suffer overall," she said. "One reason, is that the largest size of bubble tea we serve is 16 ounces, and also, our customers can choose how much sugar they want in their bubble tea drinks," she said.

Only one variety of tea comprises 50 percent of the store's revenue, she noted: the original black tea with tapioca pearls.

When asked if the proposed law might inordinately impact tea cafes, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bloomberg likened the proposal to how the smoking law was originally received.

"We've heard these claims of pending apocalypse before when we proposed bold public health initiatives, and they have been proven false," said Samantha Levine, Bloomberg's deputy press secretary. "Critics predicted the end of tourism and that businesses would sink when we banned smoking in bars and restaurants, yet we've grown tourism to record levels and the restaurant and bar industry continues to grow," she said.

Still, ThirsTea regular Ruby Johnstone, 20, a photographer who said she couldn't get through the day without a large bubble tea, fumed that the proposal could curb her tea consumption. "I would really be angry if the Bloomberg administration passed this law," she said, but already knew her solution.

"If I'm forced to, I'll start buying two small, instead of a large bubble tea," Johnstone said.

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