Harris Lee is always chatting with his bobaTEAque customers.
He’ll explain why he and his wife, co-owner Yuki Zhang, chose royal Ceylon black tea, jasmine green tea, tieguanyun (TGY) oolong tea as the three base teas for their entire menu.
He’ll explain how he recommends drinking cheese foam teas, a popular trend in Taiwan and China, in a way where you can control the ratio of savory and sweet — tip the cup gently toward yourself to get your preferred amount of foam, then lift it up higher like you’re chugging it so the tea pours through the foam, and then mix the two in your mouth.
But he’ll also ask for an update on your kid’s after-school activities, sympathize with your long, sleepless night, and give tips about visiting the neighboring small businesses in their Orange strip mall.
He and Zhang may be the owners, but they are also the only employees, so they take the orders, make the drinks and deliver them to the table. Ever since bobaTEAque opened last year, they’ve worked seven days a week — 10-and-a-half-hour days on all days except Sunday, when they give themselves a night off.
Getting to know the customers is what makes the job fun, says Lee.
Zhang, though friendly, is less gregarious than her husband, but she’s the mastermind behind the business.
“I pushed him a little bit,” she says, of the idea to open their own store.
Zhang and Lee met while working at a boba tea shop in the San Gabriel Valley.
Lee was managing the store, and he trained Zhang. They only worked together for a few months; he quit to pursue a career in hotel management.
As soon as he left, he asked her out. Their first date was at Knott’s Scary Farm.
He thought he’d look pretty calm and cool, since he’s not the type to be scared by haunted houses. But she mostly remembers that he made her go on a roller coaster by herself.
“He waited with me in line, and then when it was our turn, he was like, ‘I’ll see you at the exit,’ ” she says.
“Technically, I invited her to the [haunted] mazes,” he says, explaining that his stomach can’t handle the loops.
Long after they both left the boba shop, Lee continued making tea drinks at home as a hobby. He once brought home-made milk tea and boba to an office Thanksgiving potluck.
“I borrowed one of those water cooler dispensers at work,” he says, “took it home and brought it back, filled with tea.”
Zhang, who immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager for college, remembers how excited her San Gabriel Valley-born husband was when her parents visited from Nanjing, China.
“My mom really, really likes milk tea,” says Zhang. “So he was like, ‘I finally have someone who can drink milk tea with me every day.’”
When Zhang told her parents they wanted to open their own boba tea shop, her mother thought it was a good idea.
“My mom and dad are both very picky,” she says. “My mom already thought he was good at making tea … My dad was like, ‘Let me try your stuff, and I will tell you guys if you can open a store or not.’ And he liked it.”
On their honeymoon, they mixed business and pleasure, visiting tea shops and plantations all over Japan, Taiwan, China and Singapore.
“Higher-quality tea matters a lot more in Asia,” says Lee. “We want people to understand that quality tea is smooth, not bitter. It’s like coffee. If you go to a coffee plantation, the owner will tell you that if it’s bitter coffee, it’s not from his plantation. It’s made incorrectly. Same with tea.”
BobaTEAque makes more traditional Taiwanese-style tea. Their drinks are not overly sweet, though customers can adjust the sugar by percentage and they do have an “extra sweet” option for those who want the extra kick.
They don’t use powders or chemical additives. Everything is made to order from a limited menu — only flavor combinations they think make good pairings.
“We love the In-N-Out model, because in Asia, everything’s like that too,” says Lee. “You go to a stall and they literally only sell one or two things. So we focus more on quality over quantity.”
It took years for them to finally open their own store, and it was only possible with “a lot of love from family and friends,” says Zhang.
An acquaintance Lee played basketball with offered to help with contracting work. Lee’s sister came up with the Instagrammable illustrations that line the walls. Not to mention their family and friends they subjected to years of taste testing to perfect their menu.
“I think about the challenges of having our own business, but [in the end,] I’d rather work with him,” says Zhang. “It’s easier for us to communicate with each other. It’s easier to work as us.”
Eventually Zhang and Lee want to start a family, but for now bobaTEAque is their baby.
IF YOU GO
Where: 1960 N Tustin St, Orange
Information: (657) 888-5238; bobateaque.com