We're all agreed that Starbucks doesn't sell coffee, right? It sells coffee drinks. There's a distinction. When the company opened its first location in 1971, it sold coffee. I'd say it changed irreversibly in 1996, when bottled Frappuccino “coffee drink” (the company uses the phrase on its own website!) became available in grocery stores.
Starbucks also sells teas — passion tea lemonade, unsweetened, is a delightful offering I learned about in Hong Kong — so I wondered when boba would be added to the menu. As we've discussed before, boba, or bubble tea, is big business in Los Angeles, which means it's about to be big business in the rest of the country.
After a morning spent working in a high school–adjacent Starbucks, where I observed a steady stream of teenagers order all manner of enormous, brightly colored drinks (they come in pink and blue and green now!), I reached out to Starbucks to inquire when it would be adding boba to the menu.
“We do not offer Boba in Starbucks locations and do not have any further updates at this time,” emailed a representative. Because there is no better way to intrigue a journalist than to tell them “no,” I asked for an interview. “Unfortunately we have to decline your interview request at this time,” was the response.
I did some Googling and found that I was not the only person wondering if Starbucks would ever hop on the boba train. It's a discussion on Reddit, on Twitter, on Yahoo, and on a site dedicated to Starbucks menu hacks, where they've approximated milk tea but bemoan the lack of boba. So I called some local Starbucks locations to ask if they get requests for the little tapioca balls from customers.
“No,” said the employee in Monterey Park.
“No,” was the response in West Covina, but he sounded as if he was smiling, at least.
At the Starbucks in Vons in East Hollywood, I asked the two young women working the same question. One only stared at me. The other replied, “You're, like, literally the only person to ask that.”
But it was the women answering the phone at a Torrance location that offered the most Kafka-esque answer: “This is Starbucks. We don't sell boba here.”
However, the strong denials across the board lead me to believe that Starbucks boba is in the works, and it just doesn't want, say, Dunkin' or Peet's to get there first. Because boba frappuccinos? Easy money.