Boba Craze: How boba tea got into the hands & hearts of Hampton Roads

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - Scoop in the boba, pour the tea, pop in the straw. Boba tea is a global drink skyrocketing in popularity. Now it's in the hearts and hands of people in Hampton Roads with a cult craze.

"It was the best thing I ever had in my whole life!" said Denzel Deleon, who gets boba tea at least five days a week.

Deepal Patel originally tried the drink in Richmond when visiting friends.

"I loved it, so I was really excited when the opened one here," she said.

On a Sunday afternoon, a line starts snaking inside Kung Fu Tea in Virginia Beach. The line is made up of devoted regulars including Jannine Riordan, who goes with her husband and young son.

"Once a week at least. Before, when it first started, we used to come at least three times," said Riordan.

Also in line were first-timers including Natasha Keyser, who was in town visiting family.

That begs the question: what is boba tea? Is it the same as bubble tea?

In the 1980s, Lin Hsui Hui, a product development manager for Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taiwan, poured her sweetened tapioca pudding into her iced tea, just for fun. Everyone loved it and it quickly outsold all the other iced teas. Spreading to nearby countries including Japan, South Korea and China, the drink eventually made its way into the hearts and hands of Americans.

Boba tea, bubble tea - it's all the same. Now it's practically mainstream and in Hampton Roads, many people crave it.

David Chiang, who first drank boba tea as a 5-year-old in Taiwan, wanted to open a franchise of Kung Fu Tea. From nearby Charlottesville, he wanted to open it somewhere that wouldn't rely on college students because four months out of the year end up being extremely slow.

"I said, "You know what? Virginia Beach might be a great location,'" said Chiang.

He started searching for the perfect location. One of the first options was the original Waterside District, but rent was too expensive. Then, space became available at a shopping plaza on Lynnhaven Parkway and Princess Anne Road. The first local Kung Fu Tea opened July 22, 2017.

"It turned out to be a huge success because of the community," said Chiang.

The space was originally quite small. They started with a really small ice machine and built a very small bar, but the craze grew bigger.

"It definitely made my heart pump," said Chiang.

Chiang believes the devoted following is because of a consistent product. He explained the national chain has a few key principles. They make their own boba using pure tapioca. They use non-dairy creamer, which is good for those who are lactose-intolerant. They also only serve fresh ingredients.

"If we have a whole pot leftover, we’re going to throw that out and make a whole new pot. Tea, we keep it cool at a certain temperature for four hours. After that, we dispose of it and make a new one," said Chiang.

Business-minded, Chiang said they didn't take any pay whatsoever for the first six months and made sure to get to know their customers.

"We asked customers where they came from. On Saturdays, you would hear customers from Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg," said Chiang.

Exactly one year after opening their Virginia Beach location, Kung Fu Tea opened in Norfolk on 21st Street.

"For us, it's really a pleasure for more than just the Asian community to come in and try it out. That's our goal for Kung Fu Tea. We want to make it for everybody," said Chiang.

Chiang said one of his favorite things to do is watch first-timers try boba. He said they make a very cute face when chewing the tapioca balls.

Similar to the location on Lynnhaven Parkway, the 21st Street store has devoted customers.

Deleon, a college student, said he pops in too many times.

"Five, six days a week probably? After class this is always the spot," he said.

Chiang and Kung Fu Tea hope it'll be the spot for many people for many years to come.