Earlier this month, Boba Guys’ Instagram account shared a video warning of a potential industry-wide boba storage: “Some boba shops are already out. Others will run out in the next few weeks,” says Boba Guys co-founder Bin Chen in the video. Naturally, news of the impending “boba-pocalypse” went viral. The possibility of a shortage made it difficult for some smaller tea shops in Los Angeles to stock up on boba, with bigger brands and chains buying up whatever they could.
Business owners panic-buying boba after the news hit even caused Tea Zone, the largest boba importer and distributor in the U.S., to temporarily run out of inventory. However, Eater has confirmed that Tea Zone’s boba supply has been replenished, and that the so-called shortage may only affect some parts of the East Coast.
As Eater reported last week, many LA boba shops never experienced a shortage. The Southern California owner of YiFang, who asked to be identified only as Wen, says his stores were untouched. “The reason why some local boba stores ran out of boba balls is because their supply is from local manufacturers,” he says. “Also, the news of the shortage caused panic buying and limits to be imposed. Our boba balls and tea supply were unaffected. They’ve always arrived two months after we order from our YiFang franchise in Asia.”
The temporary shortage did affect some larger distributors, like Tea Zone, which had run out of its coveted A2000 boba, a class of that boasts more Q texture and has a sought-after chewiness both outside and inside; however, the company still had plenty of its lower-end A1000 line. At that point, many store owners told Eater they were not worried — until the viral shortage news led to limits being imposed. A few days later, even Tea Zone’s A1000 was sold out. The company has addressed the brief shortage in a letter to customers and made some changes to its supply chain so the stock won’t run out again.
Tea Zone owner Alan Yu says that when economies across the country started opening up with the loosening of pandemic restrictions, thousands of restaurants and shops opened their doors at the same time, leading many of the company’s packaging products and boba supplies to sell out. Although importing companies like Tea Zone typically experience diminished inventory during the months of April and May due to the impending peak summer season, the past few weeks were particularly difficult due to the reopenings.
Most of the world’s boba comes from Taiwan, but the tapioca starch from the cassava plant used to make it is grown in Thailand. Taiwan had a record drought this year that slightly delayed its production schedule, and companies in the U.S. that produce their own boba had issues receiving tapioca starch in the time frame they needed, which further delayed their ability to make boba.
In addition to the sudden influx of orders, many of Tea Zone’s shipping containers were delayed at the rail terminal of its East Coast warehouse. Although boba drinks are very popular on the West Coast, the Midwest and East Coast have more boba shops. “Since the Midwest and East Coast have higher volume, California ended up having to shift our supplies to the Midwest to help out with their inventory in February,” Yu says.
Before the news of an impending shortage began circulating, it typically took 35 days for Lollicup containers to ship from California to Texas, the location of the Tea Zone warehouse that distributes to the Midwest and East Coast. But since last fall, international shipping from Asia has slowed significantly due to COVID-19 policies and port strikes. Shipping delays from China were also hampered due to the Ever Given cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal for eight days in March, and Texas’s wild card snowstorm that month also briefly disrupted the supply chain.
Adding to that is the backlog of massive container ships that have been stuck outside Los Angeles ports, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. The unprecedented demand for goods from Asia and record-breaking cargo volume at all ports led to a jump in shipping fees, from $2,000 to $7,000 per container for the West Coast and from $3,500 to $13,000 for the East Coast. That means the price of a case of boba has increased from about $4 to $13.
At the beginning of April, some Southern California boba business operators were posting that their supplies were stuck in limbo for months waiting to unload at the ports. Yu and Phillip Sanfield, director of media relations for the Port of Los Angeles, both agree that this bottleneck is no longer the case. Sanfield said a few months ago that the port had congestion issues, with about 40 waiting ships, but that number is now down to about 20. The average wait time for ships coming into the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is now less than eight days.
“Besides the eight days at anchor some ships encounter, there has also been some extra time needed to get containers off terminals and to warehouses, so it would not be accurate to say the boba balls have been sitting outside the ports for months now,” Sanfield says. He adds that the vaccinations of thousands of waterfront workers at the ports is encouraging and is playing a role in the supply chain improvements he’s seen in recent weeks.
Although California may no longer see huge delays, Yu believes that New Jersey and New York may see some shortages in the coming months because container ships are reducing 50 percent of their space from Asia to the East Coast. Last week, carriers reduced the number of vessels that were sent out due to the increasing costs of shipping. This will likely leave some importers in New York and New Jersey with little product to sell. Since it normally takes about 45 days for shipments from Asia to New York and New Jersey, whatever inventory the importers on the East Coast have now will need to last for that 45 days. The effect could be felt there until the end of May or early June.
As of Monday, April 25, Tea Zone says most of its inventory is back in stock. Yu confirms that he received 3,300 cases of boba this week, with 4,000 to 5,000 cases currently coming into California every week. Each case contains enough servings for about 240 drinks. “Not only are we currently back, but we are back in large quantities,” Yu says.
A number of other local boba chains claimed they were well stocked with boba after the viral news of the shortage. Gongcha’s Instagram account reassured its followers in a post last week that all its stores in California had sufficient supplies. Tastea told Eater LA that its factory in Taiwan, which produces the brand’s signature green boba balls, was unaffected. Meet Fresh, a chain of Taiwanese dessert shops with six locations in Los Angeles and stores in 16 U.S. states, was also unconcerned. “We have our own factories, suppliers, and warehouses in Taiwan that produce our sweet potato balls [and] taro balls, and our boba supply chain is equipped to deal with any short-term delays that may arise,” said Meet Fresh general manager Chingyi Fu.
Jeremy Godsil, who owns three Percolate Tea locations in LA and one in Boise, Idaho, got wind of the alleged shortage and stocked up on boba. Although his freshly brewed boba drinks do not use Tea Zone boba, he was unable to restock again last week when his manufacturer was out. He has enough boba for a while and is confident in his manufacturer. Godsil says he does not consider the delay a shortage.
Vicky Wang, owner of Twinkle Brown Sugar, which has locations in Little Tokyo, Huntington Park, and Cerritos, was nervous when limits were placed on how much she could purchase at one time. “Thankfully, we were able to work things out with distributors and suppliers so that we still have boba in stores,” she says.
For any East Coast businesses that did not stock up in bulk, if a shortage does hit, shops could always get product from West Coast companies like Tea Zone, which will ship from its Texas warehouse. “We are ready if that East Coast supply shortage happens,” says Yu. As for shops in Los Angeles that may be currently low on boba or still worried about future inventory, Yu says many of his distributors have already picked up boba to send to their local shops. It should be there just in time for National Bubble Tea Day on April 30.