A Boba Shop Attempts A Grand Reopening During The Coronavirus Quarantine
This story is part of a series focusing on how restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are coping with COVID-19.
As the country's undisputed capital of boba milk tea, the San Gabriel Valley has an endless number of drink shops peddling an endless variety of the sugary tapioca drink that originated in Taiwan. It's not easy for a boba joint to break free from the pack and harder still to keep fickle customers coming back.
That's why Michael Tu decided early last year to renovate Bubble Republic, the sit-down boba parlor he owns in the city of San Gabriel. Located at the corner of Las Tunas and South Mission, the 1,500-square-foot space has high ceilings and windows everywhere. It was the kind of place where students and young people would nurse frothy milk teas or fruity drinks while munching on popcorn chicken until late into the night. The shop had been doing solid business since opening in 2016 but with so much competition, Tu thought the space could use a facelift.
"Our sales numbers were pretty stable," Tu, who is originally from Taipei, tells me in Mandarin. "We wanted to remodel the place, attract new customers and take things to the next level."
Tu hired an interior designer in mid-2019 and began hammering out a new look. On February 24 of this year, he closed the shop for what he thought would be a four-week remodel. He had the new menu for the grand reopening ready to go.
Since December, Tu had been following the news about coronavirus in Asia. His wife is from China and they were concerned about her relatives back home. Tu watched as the virus spread from Wuhan to the rest of the world, including the United States. By late February, Los Angeles County had confirmed its first cases of the infection, but the virus still wasn't top-of-mind for most Angelenos.
"My father told me to abandon the renovations, because he said there's no telling what's going to happen in the U.S. But I thought the U.S. was going to be able to get the situation under control," Tu says.
By the time Bubble Republic was ready to reopen, he reasoned, the whole thing would have blown over.
On March 25, Bubble Republic reopened its doors to a changed world.
Los Angeles was 10 days into its dine-in restaurant ban. Instead of the splashy debut he had envisioned, Tu hustled to transform Bubble Republic into a take-out operation. For a brief moment, the idea to wait out the pandemic crossed his mind, but "A few of my staff rely solely on the restaurant for their livelihoods. If I shut down, they are done for," he says.
Now, he runs Bubble Republic with four part-time employees (and help from his family) — half of his original staff. They weren't laid off, but left because they felt unsafe working in public. The shop has reduced its hours, now opening at 11 a.m. closing at 8:30 p.m. Since reopening, sales have dropped by approximately 50%.
He also faces supply challenges. With grocery stores emptied out and the supply chains disrupted, he can't get his hands on certain ingredients. Marinara sauce (he uses it for cheese sticks and fried squid) is nowhere to be found. And the powdered creamer he uses for milk tea? It has shot up in price, in some cases by as much as $2 per bottle. "Before the pandemic, I went through at least 100 bottles a month," Tu says.
Tu spends one day a week hunting and gathering for what his shops needs. He goes to only four places — Ranch 99, Sam's Club, Costco and Smart & Final — to limit his exposure to the virus. "Safety over profits," he says.
Bubble Republic has the feel of a half-finished space. Chairs are stacked to one side of the restaurant. The newly installed floor is unscuffed, as though it's never been walked on. The mostly empty walls await new decorations.
Tu had taken out a loan for the shop's renovation, thinking he would eventually make it back but with the economic havoc, he has had to put in more of his own cash. The money he and his wife had set aside for a wedding celebration later this year has all gone toward the shop.
"My wife and my family have been supportive," Tu says.
Tu doesn't know how long he can keep Bubble Republic going. His landlord has given him a small discount on rent but he'll probably have to ask again. And his application for a federal small business emergency loan was rejected by Chase, his bank. No reason given.
Two weeks ago, Tu prepared two dozen drinks and brought it to medical workers at a nearby emergency room, just because. Last week, he did the same for the San Gabriel Police Department. This week, it's going to be the City Hall.
"When I make enough to cover my expenses for the day, I think about giving away some of my drinks for free," Tu says. "There are people in worse situations than I am — those working in the hospitals, or the police stations. This is something that I can do."