Bringing Bubble Tea and Hand-Rolled Ice Cream to Columbia
When David Lam Tran’s daughter decided to attend the University of South Carolina last spring, she expressed her disappointment in the lack of good bubble tea shops in the area. As Tran had recently retired, he saw an opportunity to change that.
Tran’s retirement plans took a different turn as he decided to open a business in a Five Points store front, combining two popular national franchises – Gong Cha and Kremo. Gong Cha is one of the largest boba outlets in the country, while Kremo is known for its hand-rolled ice cream. These two beloved concepts are now jointly housed in Tran’s new restaurant, Gong-Cha & Kremo.
“My daughter seemed skeptical at first,” Tran recalled. “But as a retiree, I can do whatever I want, right?”
A USC business school alumnus with extensive experience in international business, Tran single-handedly set up the shop, utilizing his diverse skill set.
Bubble tea, also known as boba tea, is a trendy drink that originated in Taiwan. This unique tea features special starch-based “bubbles” called pearls. The literal translation of boba is “precious pearl milky.” Although it has been popular in Asia for years, its popularity has rapidly grown in the United States over the last decade. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global boba market is valued at approximately $2 billion.
While bubble tea shops may not be as numerous worldwide compared to coffee giants like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, they have experienced remarkable growth. This growth can be attributed to factors such as customization options and the influence of Asian pop culture. According to Fortune, the bubble tea industry’s growth is expected to continue.
Hand-rolled ice cream, another emerging trend, originally hails from Thailand. This delightful treat involves spreading fresh cream onto a frozen surface and then meticulously rolling it into thin sheets of ice cream. Tran mentioned that rolled ice cream has been around for a while but hasn’t reached the same level of popularity as boba.
Nonetheless, it is a growing phenomenon in the food industry. Forbes covered its rise in America in 2016, followed by various publications on the West Coast.
Kremo, as Tran describes it, is like customized soft serve. Made with fresh cream from a local dairy farm, Kremo offers a specific sweet cream base. The cream is spread on a freezing surface, creating visually stunning sheets of ice cream for each customer.
Professor Krista Van Fleit, an associate professor of Chinese literature and language at USC, noted that while the trend of boba originated in Taiwan, it has increasingly become a symbol of Asian American identity in the United States. Noted scholar Michelle King, from the University of North Carolina, identifies boba as one of the three main foods that have defined Taiwanese history, along with beef noodle soup and pineapple.
Fleit cited a CNN news story that revealed an abundance of boba tea shops in Iowa, surpassing the number of Starbucks locations. This growth in boba tea shops can be attributed to the increasing international student population and growing diversity in the state.
Tran’s daughter, Sarah Lam Tran, who now works at the store while completing her senior year of high school in Columbia, shared her thoughts on the absence of boba in the city. She believes that boba can be even more popular than Starbucks, generating significant profits for the store. Additionally, she emphasizes the value of sharing her culture through the store’s offerings.
Compared to cities like Charlotte and New York, which boast higher Asian American populations, Columbia has limited cultural appreciation and diversity for Asian trends and people. Sarah expressed her excitement about introducing these popular Asian trends to the city.
“We are heavily influenced by Asian mainstream culture, even if we don’t always realize it,” she explained. “Asia starts many of the trends, which eventually make their way here.”