Tapioca balls -- in short supply these days. (Wikimedia Commons)

A shrinking supply of a critical product component is rippling across the globe, with implications here in Evanston.

No, we’re not talking about the semiconductor shortage that’s forcing auto factories to shut down.

Rather, this shortage involves tapioca starch balls known as boba, a key ingredient in boba tea, otherwise known as bubble tea.

“We rely on suppliers and they’re starting to run short,” says Cindy Tsao, manager of the 527 Cafe on Davis Street. 527 Cafe specializes in boba tea, a sweet combination of tea, milk, sugar, ice, toppings, and of course, the boba.

Boba sit on the bottom of the glass, but become soft and gooey and fit through large straws which are part of the drinking experience.

A passion fruit smoothie from 527 Cafe.

Assistant manager Justin Huang says “there have been delays getting tapioca starch from Thailand to manufacturing sites in Taiwan,” where boba tea originated in the 1980s. So 527 has stocked up, now with two months’ supply on hand instead of just a few weeks.

527 Cafe is a Taiwanese family-owned business. When Tsao returned to Taiwan about a decade ago, she says boba tea “was already really popular” and was also “starting to pick up traction” in the United States.

If you are over 45, you’re probably far more aware of the semiconductor shortage than you are of the shrinking boba supply. But if you’re younger, Tsao and Huang say you’re far more likely to know about boba, even if the shortage is not on your radar.

Huang says boba tea is particularly popular in places with large immigrant communities and in cities with plenty of young people and college students. If that’s not Evanston, what is?

The drink is particularly colorful, with multiple layers as well as the boba. For young people used to showing the world what they’re doing, boba tea is very “instagrammable,” Huang says.

The top of a tall glass of Oreo milk tea at 527 Cafe.

Among the boba offerings are Oreo milk tea, and strawberry matcha latte. There are also several different types of boba, including “mango popping boba,” with mango juice inside.

A regular sized boba tea goes for about $4, a large one is $5. Huang relates the growing popularity of boba with the rise of Starbucks. Once, the idea of paying $5 for coffee seemed outrageous, especially when a small drink was called a “tall.”

Nevertheless, as Starbucks proved and as boba is also showing, “people are willing to pay for a well-crafted drink.” Huang says.

Besides 527 Cafe, several other Evanston restaurants sell boba tea. Friday, April 30 is National Boba Tea Day, so if you want to figure out why this drink is catching on, order one, sit back, and as you sip it, you can forget all about the semiconductor shortage.

Top photo credit: Sophie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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