For a small business to truly thrive, there are two important factors: authenticity and creativity. For Mathew Wong, co-founder and CEO of Tea and Milk in New York City, these were absolute priorities. To stand out in the very competitive market of bubble tea, they had to create and market a product that would rise above all others.
“We wanted to be creative,” Mathew said. “We wanted to make things different. We wanted to make sure that whoever is drinking our drink tastes the love, passion, and creativity that we put in there.”
Not only did the Tea and Milk team want to share their passion with their customers, but they had to in order to survive. Bubble tea continues to rise as a trend, and it can be unfortunately easy for smaller operations to get trampled by popular chains that produce things at scale and usually at a lower price point.
To attract and retain a loyal customer base, a unique and superior product is crucial. For Tea and Milk, that meant real ingredients and special flavors. Instead of using powdered milks and taros used at many bubble tea shops, they source tea leaves, milks, and taro from local supermarkets. These fresh ingredients—plus a revolving menu of flavors based on the availability of seasonal fruits—set them apart.
This week’s Yelp reviewer Jando S. (also Yelp Queens Community Manager) shared, “Before the bubble tea craze, Tea and Milk was practically the only boba game in Astoria. And still today, they remain one of the only successful non-chain bubble tea businesses in NYC.”
Whether you’re just starting out or revisiting your current operations and product, your passion should always shine through. Why is your business important to you? What motivates you? What type of experience do you want to serve your customers? Don’t lose sight of that, and make sure your customers feel it in every interaction they have with your business.
It’s also important that your staff recognizes and embodies your vision. They won’t likely be as invested in your product/business as you are, but by sharing your mission and passion, they’ll be more inclined to translate those sentiments into their work and deliver that vision to the customers that come into your store.
Here are a few other key takeaways from this week’s episode:
- Don’t skip out on research and L&D. Mathew and his team dedicated a lot of time to research and L&D (Learning & Development)—crafting the menu, researching ingredients, and making sure that their business vision was something that both they and their customers were excited about.
- Educate your audience. You know all about your business or product, but that’s because it’s your passion. No one will know as much as you do, so take the time to teach your customers about your product or service so that they can understand what they’re getting and learn a bit along the way.
- Show your community that you care. Community is essential when it comes to thriving as a small business. During the pandemic, Mathew and his team took part in a neighborhood initiative that distributed dozens of free drinks to people in the community. “We wanted to do something for the people to make them happy,” said Mathew. “And then they’ll probably do something for someone else to make their day”
In honor of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we close with an important note from Mathew:
“With the pandemic, a lot of people saw Asian Americans as the virus itself. It does hurt a lot because then there’s hate. That’s why food is such a powerful tool—because you can taste the passion someone puts into their food and drink.
“We just want to make sure that everyone understands that all we want is unity, love, respect, happiness—all the stuff that everyone should have. I think that’s what everyone wants.”
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Mathew and Jando, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Behind the Review, episode 25 transcript
The importance of passion and authenticity
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every week I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it. As we continue to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this week, we share the story of another asian-owned business, Tea and Milk—a bubble tea shop founded by three friends in New York City that aims to bring creativity and happiness to customers with each cup of fresh tea.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
JANDO: What I really enjoyed about going there is the fact that I can smell all the different odors. There’s almost like an aroma that’s permeating throughout the room. A lot of that comes from the food that they have, like limited bakery items, but also the fact that they’re making their drinks on the spot. And it just smells so, so good that it makes me curious to ask, “What’s behind that counter? What is it that you’re making right now? And what flavors do you have that are seasonal and temporary?” Because I’d like to take those home first before indulging on everything else.
With their staff, everyone was young, everyone was friendly, and everyone made you feel like home. And it’s already a very intimate space as it is, so we can bond over drinking some boba together, but at the same time indulge in all the different things that they have to offer. That makes it a really memorable experience for me personally. And that’s one of the reasons why I love Tea and Milk.
EMILY: That’s Jando. As a Yelp Elite for the past 14 years, Jando has had a fair share of bubble tea around the country. Quick note—Yelp Elites are a diverse community of avid Yelp reviewers, who are passionate about sharing their experiences with local businesses. Although Jando had been no stranger to bubble tea, when he stumbled upon Tea and Milk eight years ago, he was so impressed that he’s become a regular ever since. Let’s hear Jando’s review.
JANDO: Before the bubble tea craze spreaded all over the borough, Tea and Milk was practically the only boba game in Astoria. And still today, they remain one of the only successful non-chain bubble tea businesses in NYC, all while having developed serious fanfare amongst the local community.
The shop is as small as many other cafes / bubble tea places. Most of the staff is of college age and is super nice. But of course, the real draw is the drinks. At various sizes they do a good job with the branding and offer a good variety of flavors that extend beyond the basic stuff that boba shops might showcase. It’s important to note they don’t use powder when making their drinks. Sure, the prices aren’t exactly budget friendly, however their high quality product proves its value quickly.
My boba jam is their hibiscus flower peach and their taro milk. Both are refreshing and mildly sweet and I prefer no boba in either of them. The roasted oolong is also worth a look, as is the signature grandma masala chai. There are new flavors constantly being added to the menu as well as seasonal ones that shouldn’t be missed.
They also deliver at this point, which is pretty awesome. I am hoping they stick around for a long time seeing as non-corporate boba is such a rare thing. To the team at T&M: keep doing what you’re doing, we’ll be drinking.
EMILY: From the branding to the constantly changing menu offerings, Tea and Milk was a pioneer in New York City’s bubble tea scene. Now a beloved and established neighborhood boba shop, it’s journey actually had a very humble beginning. It all started out with a group of friends who longed to make a difference. Let’s hear from Tea and Milk’s CEO and co-founder Mathew Wong on how the business came to be.
MATHEW: We had three people who were co-founders and we basically wanted to leave our nine to five job. We wanted to do something to get out of that corporate world. That being said, Tea and Milk wasn’t our first venture. We were doing something along the line of furniture drop shipping, and it just didn’t work out.
But ever since then, we just basically went to this boba tea shop out in Chinatown. And we were always there talking about how we want to leave our jobs, we want to do something else, we want to get creative and do something to make something different. We didn’t realize every day we were talking to each other, we were at this bubble tea shop. And eventually we were like, “Hey, why don’t we do bubble tea as well, since we enjoyed it, we can make this like an outlet for other people who are in our same shoes and basically come and say, ‘Hey, we’re here to talk.’” So that’s how the idea of Tea and Milk started. To help people think about life in a different way.
We started in 2013 and we didn’t even have a store at that point. We were doing a lot of testing of different types of teas, different types of powders, non powders, jams, and all these different things. So we didn’t want to use the traditional powdered milk, powdered taro, powdered all these like flavoring that was just not good for your body. We just want them to come in, feel welcoming, and they’re drinking something that’s healthier than the average bubble tea place.
Most of the suppliers told us that we would fail if we didn’t go through with their formula using powdered milk or taro. We were persistent. There were times where we thought, should we fall back and do that or should we not? Should we open up our franchise? Should we do something else? At that point in 2013 franchises were not that expensive, but you have no creativity, you can’t do anything else.
For us, we wanted to be creative. We wanted to make things different. We wanted to make sure that whoever is drinking our drink, tastes the love and passion that we put in there, and also the creativity that we put in there. So we had to go and find other suppliers literally around the world to find tea leaves, non-caffeinated teas, locally sourced milks, taro from our supermarkets, to figure out where it’s coming from and how they’re getting it. Eventually, we got everything together and we started to do a lot of research and development. And then we started off in a 10 by 10 foot space at the Long Island City flea market.
Talking about humble beginnings, it was very different. We didn’t know what we were stepping into. This was our first time in the food industry or in a drink industry. All three of us were in the corporate world and ever since then, we were, hey this is probably the way to go. We showcase what we’re doing, we’re brewing teas on the spot, we are putting real fruits into the drains, and real taro into the drinks. People were amazed at what bubble tea could be. It’s not just the powdered ones as a lot of people know it to be.
EMILY: Mathew and his team knew the type of the product that they wanted to serve, they didn’t compromise with powder, and went forward with the real thing—which has paid off tenfold.
Fresh ingredients elevate the entire experience. One thing that Jando loved from the moment he walked into the business is the robust aroma and flavors. Tea and Milk is famous for a seasonal menu with rotating flavors and new drinks. He follows them on social media to constantly stay up to date with what they’re serving. These new menu items are based on seasonal flavors. Tea and Milk sources fresh, high-quality ingredients from around the world. These unique and high quality products are what set them apart from the chain.
MATHEW: There are seasonal drinks and from the spring, summer, and fall time is the same seasonal menu. It changes by the season because of the types of fruits that are readily available and also fruits that are imported into the U S, imported to New York. We know that you can’t have certain fruits in a winter and they’re not going to be the best quality. We make sure that the ones that are still there on a yearly basis are just your traditional flavors or our concept flavors that we’ve actually researched and developed ourselves.
We get most of these flavors from basically all around the world. Our Rooibos tea is not directly from Asia. It is from the continent of Africa because Rooibos is from that region. We don’t get matcha from anywhere else but Japan. And then our black tea is from India. We actually have to get teas from different places, and then send it to one space, and then we pack it.
The logistics part of it is very hard and is a huge headache in the beginning and during the pandemic as well. But the way we do it is very rewarding, because you know where your teas are coming from. We also educate everyone where everything is from as well.
EMILY: Education is a big part of the engagement between Tea and Milk and their community and customers. They were one of the first bubble tea places in their New York neighborhood, Astoria. And for many customers, they were the introduction to boba, and some of the teas and flavors offered. Having employees who can make the drinks, but also educate the customers on them, and where they originate from is important to the experience. Educating your customers on the decisions behind the products and services you provide is important in any business. The story won’t always tell itself!
MATHEW: Because of our product and how different it is, we did have to explain to literally every single person why it’s different, why it’s made differently, and what bubble tea is.
We also had to make sure that our staff knew what we were doing, our mission, and our vision. Each one of our staff is very well versed at what we’re doing and the reason why we’re doing certain things certain ways. They would know every single little ingredient that goes into each drink, because on a daily basis, they make the drink itself. In the beginning, we had to tell them, this is our mission, this is the type of drink that goes out to our customers. But at the same time, explain to them what bubble tea is, make sure that they understand that this is not just a regular bubble tea from a chain. They have to understand that we are different and the reason behind it.
I think for the employees and my team which I’m very grateful for, throughout this whole time and this whole pandemic, every single one who has been here with me for this long, they understand the mission, they understand the vision, and they understand what we’re striving for.
A big part of what we do is that we educate our team, but then we also educate the people who are part our fans or people who will come in here and just try it once. When we educate them, they understand the reason why a certain drink tastes a certain way. They’ll understand that if they go somewhere else, they’re not going to get the same quality of product. So the education part of it, it goes forever because of what we’re doing.
EMILY: Let’s hear how Tea and Milk found silver linings through new initiatives during the pandemic and in giving back to the community.
JANDO: Tea and Milk came into a very sleepy part of Astoria. It’s not even the most people traffic area of the neighborhood that it created a little bit of a tidal wave. I would like to actually think that they’ve increased the demand for Boba in that particular neighborhood.
Now they have a new location in Chelsea market, so they’ve also made it to Manhattan as well. And that’s pretty big time for a small business that started in Astoria. Now that they’re doing kits and such, I think that maybe the sky’s the limit.
MATHEW: During the pandemic, we weren’t ready to stay open, even though we were deemed essential, because we’re a food and drink establishment. We were closed for a good two and a half months. My general manager, Jennifer, is the one that is the brains behind our DIY Boba kit. She spearheaded it and found everything to make that kit. She just basically texted me and was like, “Hey, I’m bored out of my mind, which everyone is.” And, she was like, “Hey, what if we started a DIY bubble tea kit? And we help people make bubble tea at home versus going to a store since everyone’s staying in doors.” I immediately said, let’s do it. I think that’s a great idea. I think that’s the perfect time to even get that run up and running.
In a matter of 24 hours, we had all the equipment we needed, the boxes, the bags, and we had the sealers because we had our inventory in the shop already. It’s not like we didn’t have anything. So with all that in place, we started sending surveys out to people saying, hey would you guys like this bubble tea kit? We didn’t know it was going to be such a big hit. We just wanted to make everyone’s day by helping them make bubble tea at home. These kits eventually shipped nationwide and even a couple of to Canada. The mailing to Canada was like $70 and they paid for it.
The kits actually served three purposes. One of which was to pay our staff who was working or working from home, working hands-on making the kits. The second one was to buy PPE for hospitals because at that point, hospitals were running out of PPE. So we ordered masks and we donated them to a lot of hospitals, a lot of clinics, and also people who were delivering food to the elderly. And the third thing that we used the money for was to donate drinks to hospitals, first responders, and those people who were actually there working around the clock. Some of the hospitals like Elmhurst hospital which was during that time hit the hardest. Mount Sinai in Queens… we donated to hospitals all over New York state itself. Every single kit served those purposes.
Eventually we reopened our shop in May, and we didn’t know what to expect. We thought it was going to be a ghost town. When we reopened on the day of, we were also shocked by how many people were here. The whole street was literally lined up six feet apart just waiting for their drinks they ordered online or they came to order.
EMILY: T&M has continued to find new and inventive ways to grow their business. Besides the popular DIY kits that they successfully launched during the pandemic, the team has also been trying out new ideas and thinking outside of the box to both grow the business and engage the whole community in Astoria. Here’s Mathew sharing a bit on their #PayItForwardAstoria campaign and how it came to be.
MATHEW: There’s other initiatives that we took as well. One of the businesses right next to us called 10 Thousand Foxed Tattoos. The owner is Tim and he came to us one day and was just like, hey can I buy 30 drinks? Basically on one day, people come into our shop to the Tea and Milk and those 30 drinks will be passed down from him to these people to make their day. And I was like, yes, let’s do that, and we’ll match it.
This initiative is called #PayItForwardAstoria. On a monthly basis, on a certain day we pick, we give out 60 drinks on the house because we want to do something to make people happy. And then for them to eventually think about that initiative that was there through Tea and Milk and 10 Thousand Foxes, they’ll probably do something else for someone else to make their day. And you have it trickled down a little bit. That’s something else that we participated in during this time, because a lot of things were happening and people were not happy. We just wanted to start and brighten other people’s days with that initiative itself.
EMILY: Tea and Milk cares about their community and the people who live in it. That deeper connection is what motivates customers and community members like Jando to share their experience.
JANDO: Tea and milk, the fact that it’s locally owned, doesn’t belong to a corporation of any kind, and they use artisanal type stuff makes me really excited to try some of the things that they’re offering. And it makes me more invigorated over the fact that I’m helping support a small business as opposed to a global chain conglomerate.
It’s about putting your two cents out there in hopes that it helps people that are looking for the same thing. I’ll start writing in a voice where hopefully people can resonate with it. And hopefully more importantly, that it can help people make that educated decision ultimately on where to spend their money.
EMILY: A lot has changed since the locally owned Tea and Milk first opened and received its first review—and so has the team’s approach to reviews. Now, it’s a collective team effort and dedication to learning from mistakes and delivering the best customer service.
MATHEW: So in the very beginning when we first started and we saw our name on Yelp, we didn’t even know we signed up, but I guess people write you up and then it just automatically gets you in. We were seeing a lot of five star reviews, four star reviews, and we were very happy about it. It was great. We loved it. At the beginning, as a business owner, it’s your baby, right? Everything you’re doing is important to you, so you want to make sure that the feedback that you get is positive or constructive.
When you get that first review that says, “Oh, I ordered large, but I got a medium,” and it’s a one star review, that is heartbreaking, right. Wait, how does that render one star review? I was very sensitive to it. I was like, “Oh my God, I messed up.” And then it actually stops, the whole business stops, the whole idea of running a business stops, because maybe I’m not built for it. I don’t want to do this because I feel like everyone’s just criticizing or something’s wrong, I’m not doing something right. And eventually I felt like I just don’t want to do it because if you see more and more negative reviews, it’s just sad, but then you go back and read the positive reviews and then it just basically balances out.
The negative review sometimes, it gets in the way too much. But now, I look at them, if it’s constructive, I will take it into heart and figure out what has gone wrong, what did go wrong that day? If something happened, is it a team effort, find out from the bottom and then work our way up to figure out what the problem was.
We read every single review. We make sure that everyone is understanding of what the review says. When we get a review, we share it with the team on a daily basis. We use Slack to tell everyone.
That’s what we’re about. A lot of it is customer service. We have to make sure that people are happy when they leave our facility or our shop. No one wants to go to a place and just leave unhappy. Right? I don’t go to a shop and leave unhappily and then just be unhappy the whole day. I’m sure the owners or the managers want to fix that. At least from my point of view, if you tell me, we’ll fix it for you immediately. If there’s not enough sugar or there’s too little Boba, too much Boba, we’ll fix it for you. It was a medium and not a large, alright, we’ll fix that. It’s not a problem for me. We just want you to be happy.
EMILY: Not only does Tea and Milk strive to make customers satisfied, but they also hope to foster a meaningful relationship with everyone who comes in. Having people leave happy! That’s really what it’s about at the end of the day. From the big initiatives like pay it forward Astoria, to a simple transaction and moment of education with a customer, it’s about making people leave your business happy.
Mathew’s childhood sentiment with bubble tea is another reason why he wants to craft a space where customers can feel like home.
MATHEW: I grew up in the Lower East side of Manhattan and it’s close to Chinatown. Bubble tea was a phenomenon that people didn’t understand when I was going up. As it was growing and growing, it was somewhat still not the most affordable drink during that time. Because for me, we grew up in the projects, so it was a place where it was for low income, and we couldn’t afford to buy bubble tea on a daily basis or even once a week or once a month given. During that time, if we were good enough, my mom or my dad would be okay, you guys are good today. All right, let’s go get bubble tea. It was a treat.
So bubble tea resonates in that type of way for me, or any type of milk tea from a bakery. You can only get it when you are a good kid, but in a way, I really wanted to have it readily available to everyone who would like it. That might be a part of the reason why Tea and Milk is born in a way where it pushes us to form a relationship with our customers versus just selling a drink. We want our customers to feel like they’re at a location where everyone’s family. The unity, the relationship, the togetherness that feels like family. So that’s our vibe.
EMILY: To wrap us up, here’s Mathew sharing a closing thought on being an Asian American business owner.
MATHEW: I think in this time after the pandemic, a lot of people saw Asian Americans as the virus itself. It does hurt a lot, because then there’s hate. That’s the reason why I think food is such a powerful tool because you can taste the passion someone puts into their food and drink. That being said, as an Asian American business owner, it is a little rough because we don’t know what’s going to happen to our staff. We don’t know what’s going to happen to our business. If something does happen, what if someone comes in vandalizes or hurts our staff.
We just want to make sure that everyone understands that all we want is unity, love, respect, and happiness—all the stuff that everyone should have. I think that’s what everyone wants.
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