Tea with a bite

Second-year MBA student at Whitman, Jerry Liu, runs a bubble tea cafe on Crouse Avenue in his spare time.

While many graduate students focus on preparing for the real world, Whitman student Jerry Liu is already there. Last summer, Liu and two partners turned a run-down commercial space on Crouse Avenue into an exciting bubble tea business - Boba Suite Tea House.

Bubble tea originated in Taiwan and has become popular in big cities throughout the United States. It can be served hot or cold and is filled with gummy tapioca balls, making it both nourishing and refreshing. According to Liu, a second-year graduate student majoring in entrepreneurship and marketing, there’s a bubble tea culture in Taiwan similar to the coffeehouse culture in the United States.

“Not only with students, but also people who are working,” Liu said. “If people are having a busy afternoon, the boss will order everybody bubble tea.”

The site of Boba Suite Tea House was first home to a McDonald’s and later a barbecue restaurant that never opened. The greasy kitchen, dirty interior and outdated décor presented a challenge. Liu said he and his partners did most of the cleaning and design due to their limited budget. They then sought out the proper business licensing and began construction. Last, Liu returned to his native Taiwan to make arrangements with bubble tea suppliers.

“There were a million things we had to do, so we didn’t have time to think about whether we were nervous or not,” said Liu, a first-time business owner. “We were just trying to get everything done every day.”

Boba Suite opened on Aug. 15, just four months after the partners found the vacant space last spring.

With popular franchises such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts already in the Marshall Street area, the tea house focuses on offering something new and unique.

“We wanted to take a different approach,” Liu said. “We wanted more of the Starbucks life with better quality drinks, ice cream, and more selection. That’s how we chose bubble tea.”

The owners also wanted to create a place where people could hang out or do schoolwork, so they offer free Wi-Fi and comfortable seating at the tea bar or at tables. For those who don’t drink tea, Boba Suite has a variety of gelato flavors.

Liz Tsubota, a senior drama major, visited Boba Suite for the first time because Starbucks was too crowded. She said the free Wi-Fi was very appealing.

The busy tea house attracts a mixture of students, some chatting with friends and others buried in their MacBooks and bubble tea. Low-key lounge music adds to the modern, minimalist feel of the shop’s interior.

“I really like the atmosphere. I actually listen to the music sometimes,” said Melody Miller, a senior civil engineering major. “It’s like popular songs but not the original artists, which I find intriguing.”

“We definitely try to emphasize that relaxed, welcoming environment,” said Aya Yamamoto, a Boba Suite employee and sophomore environmental biology major at SUNY ESF. She first discovered bubble tea at home in New York City. “Bubble tea is big in the Big Apple,” she said.

Liu, a long-time Orange basketball fan, chose to attend Syracuse University after being offered a scholarship at the Whitman School of Business. Juggling Boba Suite, business school and graduate assistant duties, his schedule is packed full. He often has to answer Boba Suite e-mails and resolve scheduling conflicts with his staff while at school. He rarely finds time to do schoolwork when he’s in the store, however. Liu said that the constant maintenance involved in managing a store, such as fixing a faulty credit card machine or repairing a broken ice maker, demands all of his attention at Boba Suite.

“After school, we [spend] about eight to ten hours in the store,” Liu said. “Basically, I have something to do every hour. I break my time up into hours.”

Prior to attending Syracuse University, Liu spent 14 months doing administrative work for the missiles and electronics squad of the Taiwan Air Force. He said that experience helps him handle the day-to-day duties of running a business.

“There was a lot of pressure there,” Liu said. “I learned to deal with pressure and get the job done no matter who you’re working with.”

In the long-term, Liu and his partners hope to franchise Boba Suite Tea House. They spent money designing and printing their logo on cups, creating a brand the way Starbucks and Panera Bread did. Liu said that eventually offering hot food could attract more customers, but adding another service is a challenge that necessitates more employees and supply. For the short-term, Liu is focused on running a smooth shop and getting his M.B.A.

“I’m going to stick around for another year after I graduate at least,” Liu said. “And we do want to look around for [spaces] near school that have similar traits.”

(Photo: Alyssa Greenberg)

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