Angelenos are no strangers to quality boba drinks. The city boasts some of the most diverse selections of bubble tea in the States — from the chronically sweet selections at Half and Half to the aromatic brews at AU79 Teahouse.
Elton Keung, a 24-year-old USC alumni, wanted to add another variety to the mix — alcoholic boba concoctions.
In 2011, instead of opting for a salaried job right after graduation, Keung traveled to Taichung, Taiwan, to pay a visit to Chun Shui Tang, the company that's widely credited with inventing boba. Inspired after his research, Keung invested all his money into opening Boba 7, a tea bar located in the back of Soi 7 in downtown Los Angeles. With menu options like Green Tea Heineken and Horchata Boba, the start-up has already gained considerable momentum and an impressive visitor list that includes Joe Jonas, Phillip Wang, Kevjumba and Jhonen Vasquez.
We sat down with the San Gabriel Valley native to talk about his inspirations and how he went from a student to a business owner in less than a year.
Squid Ink: How did you get your start in this?
Elton Keung: I was an entrepreneur student at USC. I really have no background in the food industry until summer 2011 when I interned for Nguyen Tran of Starry Kitchen. That summer I conceived the alcoholic boba concept.
SI: Why did you choose food then?
EK: I got into food because it's fun. I was always an entertainer type of personality. It feels great to be able to see people enjoy your work versus the corporate life where you can't visually see your impact.
SI: So were you always into the food industry or did you just decide on a whim to get into it?
EK: On a whim. I saw the opportunity in boba even though there was a new boba place opening every week. I felt I'm on the brink of something very different with the Asian mixology idea. Alcoholic boba won't take off until I'm wildly successful with it.
SI: So take me through the steps. You went from an intern at Starry Kitchen to an owner of your own business
EK: I interned at Starry Kitchen summer 2011, and I had one more semester to finish at USC. During that semester, I was mixing Green Tea Heinekens at parties. I took bartending school while working at Starry Kitchen after conceiving the idea. But I feel like it's every kid's dream to have their own little labobatory where they can mix concoctions and see if it tastes good. I learned mostly from Google and just doing it. I officially finished school December 2011. Relaxed awhile and went on an expedition to Taiwan to see where boba came from in April. Opened Boba 7 on July 5.
SI: Tell us about this expedition to Taiwan that inspired your business.
EK: So I ventured into Taichung, in the middle of Taiwan. Through my research, I pinpointed this lady that I had to meet. The one day I was in Taichung, her company happened to be doing a milk tea making competition. It was one of those moments where the stars aligned and I knew I was meant to do boba. I call it entrepreneurial momentum. They kindly invited me in and I interviewed them and learned about the history of what happened in 1985.
SI: What happened in 1985?
EK: The inventor put her tapioca pudding dessert into milk tea. The company Chun Shui Tang, innovator of cold milk tea, began selling the product ever since and it has become part of Taiwanese culture.
SI: Boba 7 is inside the Thai restaurant Soi 7 correct?
EK: Yeah, in the back. It's branded as a speakeasy and is owned by David Tewasart. He's a USC alumni. He was introduced through my friend Tracy Lawrence, the founder of Chewse. Keeping your idea a secret isn't the best idea in my opinion, because no one can help you when you're in stealth mode. The fact that Tracy knew about my business and introduced me to David is primarily how I am able to start-up and have a location to work out of. My parents are also very supportive. There wasn't much pressure to get a real job.
SI: How did you get the start-up money?
EK: I basically used my $2000 credit line on my credit card to start-up. I didn't have much I needed to buy. David helped me with the initial supply purchase, of around $800.
SI: You grew up in the San Gabriel Valley so you're familiar with the competition. How do you set Boba 7 apart?
EK: My menu is similar to a teahouse in SGV, but I have some unique drinks like horchata boba and I have a “Labobatory” menu which is all the alcoholic drinks. I also plan on hash-tagging my whole menu eventually. I have all the usual suspects that you can find at a teahouse as well, like milk green tea and almond milk tea.
SI: How many unique drinks do you have on there?
EK: Six unique drinks, and also a seventh drink called the “Mad Scientist” which is basically a create-your-own-science-experiment soju drink. It's soju and yogurt-based, but flavored with whatever flavors you like that I have — and anything you want inside, like lychee jelly or boba.
SI: Does boba go with any sort of alcohol?
EK: Boba doesn't really go well with most alcohol, but the one drink that I use is Irish cream and Kahlua flavored and that works really well with the honey boba.
SI: What's the difference between regular boba and honey boba?
EK: Calling it honey boba makes people want it more. But most people sweeten with honey and brown sugar these days. Simple syrup to sweeten is outdated.
SI: How has business been since the opening? Any future plans?
EK: It was doing great during the summer. Boba 7 was designed to be a summer pop-up, but I'm staying here until I can integrate it to Soi 7. My next plan is to open Labobatory in either West L.A. or SGV. It'll be a high-touch boba teahouse that is very social.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.