Another Unlikely Pandemic Shortage: Boba Tea

(Photo: NYTimes)
A panic erupted on the West Coast this week. Over a drink.

It happened when beverage aficionados learned that tapioca, the starch used to make the bubbles — or pearls — that are the featured topping in the popular boba tea drink, was in short supply.اضافة اعلان

The impending boba shortage is yet another sign of how the pandemic has snarled global supply chains, upended industries and created scarcities of goods from toilet paper and ketchup to electronics. In this case, a surge of pent-up demand for products assembled abroad, coupled with a shortage of workers due to coronavirus cases or quarantine protocols, has caused a month long maritime pileup at ports in Los Angeles and San Francisco and left ships delivering goods from Asia — including tapioca — waiting out at sea.

Boba or bubble tea, a drink that can be made with milk or fruit-flavored green or black tea, originated in Taiwan and has grown in popularity and prominence in the United States throughout the 2000s. Boba suppliers in the San Francisco Bay Area who are running low on tapioca said their shipments of fully formed boba come from Taiwan, while supplies of cassava root, which is used to make tapioca, come from Thailand and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Arianna Hansen, a sales representative for Fanale Drinks, which is based in Hayward, California, and supplies boba to thousands of stores around the country, said shipments had been backed up for several months, and the company’s stockpile of tapioca is running dangerously low.

The number of container ships waiting at anchor to dock in Los Angeles or Long Beach, California, peaked at 40 in February, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California. That declined to 19 ships Thursday, still far from the usual zero to one ship that was the norm pre-pandemic, said Kip Louttit, the exchange’s executive director.

Hansen said she expected supply to return to close to normal levels by the summer.

In the meantime, anxious boba store owners are scrounging for tapioca.

Brian Tran, co-owner of Honeybear Boba in San Francisco, said, “A boba shop without boba is like a car dealership without cars to sell. It’s like a steakhouse without steak.”

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