Walking into Tobe Milk Tea, there are red balloons in the window and yellow flowers on the wall — decorations for Lunar New Year.
The shop’s specialty is bubble tea, also called milk tea or boba. The caffeinated drink originated in Taiwan but gained traction in many parts of the world. In Fredericton, there are only a few places that sell bubble tea.
Khuong Tran, who also goes by Helen, saw a potential demand for bubble tea in the city. She said in Asian countries, the drink is most popular among teenagers and university students.
“Here, I want to design all the products for all the people,” she said. “Not just for young people — old people, men, women, children, all of the people.”
Tran sold Vietnamese food in Fredericton under the name Betty Lee’s Baking Paradise for five years, but over Christmas break, she made the change official. She closed her doors for three weeks of renovations.
“We had to work very hard,” said Tran, who was at the shop almost every day until midnight.
Tobe served its first bubble tea two weeks ago. Tran said they are selling to a lot of students from the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University.
New Brunswick’s Level 3 lockdown kept them from initially opening its indoor seating, but she said takeout is going well.
“People here have been supporting me [and] welcoming my products,” said Tran.
Along with bubble tea, they serve sandwiches, noodles and finger foods.
Some background on boba
Bubble tea is made up of three basic components: tea, milk and boba. What comes after is up to the customer. Tobe offers black tea and earl grey, but Tran’s favourite is oolong.
The boba, squishy and sweet pearls at the bottom of the drink, are made fresh every morning. So are other toppings like coffee jelly, cheese jelly and mango jelly.
Customers can build their own tea or choose from the specials board.
The Tobe special is made of milk, oolong tea, brown sugar, tapioca pearls, pudding and cheese foam. It is sweet and creamy with a hint of caramel from the brown sugar.
Tran described the pudding that goes into the drinks as a special kind of crème brulée. When making recipes for bubble tea, she draws on old recipes and her background in baking.
Cheese foam is a combination of cheese and whipping cream.
“It’s fluffy and creamy,” said Duyen Lam, an employee at the shop. “It will melt on your tongue.”
Lam helped to develop the specials on the menu. She said they are planning to release seasonal drinks like pumpkin spice for the fall. This February, they will have a special drink for Valentine’s Day.
Lam, like Tran, grew up in Vietnam. She compared young people’s obsession with coffee shops in Canada to young people’s love of boba in Vietnam.
“It’s been really hard since I moved here because I really miss boba tea,” she said. “Then [Tobe Milk Tea] opened and it’s like heaven on earth.”
The shop adds some diversity to the culinary scene in Fredericton. Lam is seeing new Asian markets and restaurants pop up in the city.
Tran wants to spread the word that a new drink is in town.
“People know about Tim Hortons,” said Tran. “But maybe after summer or a year, more people can know about bubble tea.”