BLOOMBERG – When New York-based snack content creator MuchwithDes found boba milk tea jelly beans at Chicago’s Sweets and Snacks Expo, the largest candy event in North America, she posted a 15-second video to TikTok. The clip, which came out in late May, got more than 540,000 views and almost 57,000 likes and is one of her all-time best-performing videos.
“I swear everything is coming out with boba flavours,” a commenter posted.
The sweet-tea tapioca-pearl-studded drink, also known as bubble tea, has been popular in its birthplace of Taiwan and across Asia for decades.
In the past few years, its purveyors have become almost as ubiquitous in the United States (US) as Starbucks stores – seven major urban areas in the US, from Chicago to the New York metro area and Los Angeles/Southern California, saw a 60-per-cent-plus jump in the number of bubble tea shops from 2019 to 2022. The US market for boba, which has its own dedicated emoji, is expected to jump from USD640 million in 2023 to USD2.2 billion in 2033.
Now the drink is moving into the snack-food category to become the flavour of choice for popcorn, protein bars, ice cream, cookies and more.
In July, Jelly Belly Candy, which created the confections MuchwithDes, will officially release a collection in boba milk flavours such as mango, taro and matcha. “I make the distinction between it being a trend and being trendy,” said vice president of global marketing at Jelly Belly Robert Swaigen. “There’s lots of evidence that this is here to stay. So we’re not chasing a Pet Rock.” In fact, Jelly Belly has been developing boba milk tea jelly beans since August 2021 while keeping an eye on its popularity. “That’s also one of the criteria that we have for launching a new line – it has some longevity from everything we can tell,” he added. “This is a kind of lifestyle choice for the Gen Z crowd especially.”
In New York in late June at the 2023 Summer Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest specialty-food show, there were plenty of new snack brands embracing boba flavours. Tochi, a snack brand founded in 2019 by three Asian Americans who are veterans of the finance industry, introduced black-milk-tea-accented popcorn to their line-up.
“With the pervasiveness of bubble tea, we felt like it was a perfect flavour to kind of blend a unique product into something that was ubiquitous, which is a popcorn, super timeless as a nostalgic snack,” said Tochi co-founder Dina Shi, who worked as an investment banker at Merrill for five years. “We felt like it was like the perfect vehicle to deliver something that was traditionally from Asia but is being more adopted mainstream in the US.”
Boba-flavoured products aren’t brand new. In 2020, Tiger Sugar, a bubble tea chain that originated in Taiwan, launched black sugar popcorn. Kung Fu Tea, the US’s largest bubble tea chain, with more than 350 locations nationwide, introduced Dragon Pop, a gluten-free popcorn including brown sugar milk tea flavour, in 2022. Even within the US, boba products have been available in options such as protein powder and brown sugar ice cream bars at Costco.
But the trend is now peaking as a flavouring in the snack-food aisle. Molly Bz, a gourmet cookie brand, introduced its newest product, a snickerdoodle cookie with mini strawberry boba, at the Fancy Food Show. “I follow the trends, and boba is on trend,” said founder Molly Blakeley. She plans to do five different kinds of boba in the near future.
Boba has even come full circle – to be a tea flavour. Pinky Up Tea, a brand created in 2016 in Seattle, introduced four kinds of boba tea sachets filled with various tea and real tapioca pearls in January. The line claims that it’s product, in flavours including brown sugar, mango guava and mochi ice cream, deliver a boba experience without extra sugar or calories. – Xinyi Luo