Bubble tea shortage 2021: Shipping backlog making it harder to find boba. How long will the COVID shortage last?


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Computer chips, Heinz ketchup packets and now Boba tea.

Bubble tea products, also called Boba, are becoming harder to find as another COVID-19-related shortage takes hold. 

The San Francisco Chronicle first reported on the shortage saying a worldwide shipping snarl created a backlog for U.S. deliveries of tapioca, the chewy balls, in boba drinks, imported from Taiwan.

The blockage of the Suez Canal by a skyscraper-sized cargo ship last month is causing delays in the global supply chain, which is part of the reason for the shortage.

“This is an industry-wide shortage,” the owners of Hayward, California-based U.S. Boba Co. said on their Boba Guys Instagram page. “Some boba shops are already out. Others will run out in the next few weeks. 99% of boba comes from overseas.”

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There are Boba Guys shops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and the company has a factory in California. But even with a factory, they said supplies “will be in flux for several months until we get our next series of tapioca starch shipments.”

Oliver Yoon, the vice-president of sales and global marketing for Boba Direct, a Chicago-based nationwide supplier of bubble tea products, told Business Insider the shortage started about a month ago and wasn’t likely to end until the end of April at the earliest.

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Alex Ou, owner of Tea & Others in San Francisco, told the Chronicle 70% of her customers prefer boba drinks. “Some people will not buy a drink if we’re out of boba,” Ou told the Chronicle. “They’re literally here for the boba.”

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Kung Fu Tea, the nation’s largest chain of bubble tea with 250 locations, predicts the shortage could last longer. Mai Shi, the company’s marketing and public relations lead, told USA TODAY that the shortage could become more of a problem in the summer.

“We have warehouses on both East and West cCoast, so our shortage compared to other boba brands is way less significant,” Shi said. “However, we definitely see a trend that the demand for the entire bubble tea category is ever increasing as people want fresh, made-to-order drinks.”

Shi said the chain, which started in New York City in April 2010 and is adding another 70 locations this year, also is bracing for more ingredient shortages like of coconut powder and taro.

At the same time, the brand is also looking to add new products with local ingredients to its menu of 64 drinks.

“We are using this as an opportunity to educate not only our franchisees but also customers that bubble tea is not just milk tea,” she said, adding the menu has 64 drinks. “It can also be orange green tea, Hershey’s S’more’s Slush, Honey Lemonade, and Matcha Milk, or just a simple Kung Fu oolong tea.”

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And despite the shortage, Kung Fu is still planning to celebrate its annual National Bubble Tea Day April 30 when it will give app users a free drink with a $4 credit to use on their next order May 1-7.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko





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