Megan Lee comes from a long line of tea experts. Her grandfather was the founder of Ten Ren Tea, Taiwan's largest tea chain, with locations in seven countries including the United States. But despite being a shareholder in the Ten Ren empire, Lee's father had a different vision for the company and began his own business, AU 79 Teahouse in 1998.
Today, Lee runs the entire AU 79 Teahouse chain, a bubble tea shop with three locations in the San Gabriel Valley. On weekend evenings, the store is so packed that it's nearly impossible to snag a seat. But despite the shop's popularity in the city of Arcadia, Lee notes that the competition between tea houses in the SGV is fierce. She finds herself constantly struggling to appeal to the completely different demographics of customers that pass through her doors on a daily basis.
"When we first started, the crowd was very Chinese, then American-born-Chinese and now Americans," Lee said.
We caught up with Lee at the Arcadia location to chat about the challenges of running a tea business and the language barriers she and her staff face. The interview was conducted in Chinese. Turn the page for the translation.
Squid Ink: When did you start developing an interest in tea?
Megan Lee: In the beginning I didn't have a lot of interest in tea. My father, on the other hand, was an expert. He could smell a tea leaf and tell what it was. He could drink it and tell which mountain the tea was from. I only started to dedicate time to tea when I was 27 years old. I started to develop drinks and felt that it was rewarding whenever I got positive feedback. I just thought it was a fun job to do.
SI: What distinguishes your tea from any other boba shop out there?
ML: We have our own tea factories in Taiwan. Our competitors get their tea from wholesalers; anyone can get that tea. But for us, we get our tea from our personal factories. In addition, our manufacturing approach is holistic. We are constantly using both experience and technology in order to improve the quality of tea and remove the bitter taste. We also make our tea easy to store. There's a lot of complicated procedures involved in that. We choose a good variety of tea. Choosing the type of tea is one of the most important aspects of the business. In addition, our quality-control procedures are very strict. If the finished produced does not meet our standards, we won't use it. That's why our prices are higher than others in the industry.
SI: What about Ten Ren? Your grandfather started Ten Ren and your father started AU 79. What are the main differences between the two companies?
ML: We're not under Ten Ren's system. My father wanted to branch out and give us our own system. He didn't want to work under the Ten Ren system. The difference lies in the tea. Our tea farm is from my father. Ten Ren has their own tea, but their tea leaves are all crushed. Their standards are not that high because they have too many store branches and they have to resort to the cheapest tea leaves. Not everyone can taste the difference, because there are so many tea shops out there. People tend to go to Ten Ren because the store is a brand, but it doesn't mean that they're necessarily good.
SI: The culture and language gap between Americans and Chinese immigrants can be very large. How do you deal with this?
ML: We're trying to appeal to the American audience. That's why I hired a lot of English speakers in an attempt to attract more Americans. We don't want Americans to feel like they can't come here because they can't communicate with the workers. In the last two years I've really changed who I hired. That's been my model for Arcadia. But our location in San Gabriel is still primarily an Asian crowd. Mostly, I found people who can just speak English -- but that became another problem because the Chinese population here is growing. The immigrants here can't speak English, so there is a language barrier between them and our workers.
SI: You're Taiwanese and the company definitely has roots in Taiwan. Would you describe your cuisine as strictly Taiwanese food?
ML: Our food has a fusion element to it. It really depends on the customers. For example: miso fish. Miso fish is targeting the people who don't like fried or meaty dishes. Then we have a vegetarian section; it's not vegan but it has no meat. We're appealing to the environmentally conscious people.
SI: What are some popular dishes within the different demographics?
ML: American-born Chinese really like our Taiwanese spaghetti. That's very popular. Crispy chicken is a favorite among Asians. Americans typically don't order that much from our food menu. They're fans of our toast, though.
SI: What about in terms of tea?
ML:We are always coming out with new flavors to target more American people. For example, we've come out with apple oolong, passion fruit oolong, and peach oolong tea. We don't add syrup to blend a drink. We take the tea leaves and then we roast them with peach and apple flavors. It doesn't taste as artificial; it's much more refreshing. In terms of tea, Americans like more bland flavors. From the last two years, as I've seen more Americans come in my store, I've realized that they don't like really sugary drinks. The trend among them is more natural, organic and fruity drinks.
SI: You're situated right next to a Starbucks. Do you see them as a serious competitor?
ML: Not really. It doesn't really affect us. If you go into the Starbucks, the customers are completely American. I feel like Americans don't really have as strong an appreciation for tea compared to Asians. It's getting there, but it's not as strong. Tea has a lot of caffeine, but they don't wake up and say, "I want tea." They'll go for coffee.
SI: AU 79 is constantly changing its menu. How do you determine what dishes are in vogue?
ML: Every year I'll go back to Taiwan and look at current trends. However, what works there doesn't necessarily work here. It's like fashion -- there's a gap. But slowly we'll find an in-between. I take what I learn from there and I think of how to create a flavor to appeal to the people here.