‘Everyone’s just panicking’: A boba shortage looms for some shops as container ships sit anchored off ports of L.A., Long Beach

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Homemade milk bubble tea with boba is seen in a file image. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Homemade milk bubble tea with boba is seen in a file image. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

As container ships sit anchored off the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, creating supply bottlenecks, a boba shortage looms for some stores nationwide — and it could last for months.

Some kinds of imported boba and the tapioca starch needed to make the sweet, chewy balls for the popular bubble tea drinks are sitting in shipping containers, idling in the ocean.

“Everyone’s just panicking right now,” said Michael Bigasan, business development manager at Fanale Drinks, a nationwide boba supplier based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Bigasan said distributors are worried about the boba and ingredients expiring as they sit in the shipping containers.

The COVID-19 pandemic trade bottleneck is a chain reaction being blamed on Americans ordering more goods online, and shortages of equipment and labor needed to unload the ships locally. It has left businesses waiting months for a variety of goods from Asian countries, including tapioca.

The boba shortage isn’t an industry-wide problem, L.A. Eater reported. Local tea shops told the outlet their supply chain is equipped to deal with any delays.

And the owner of Little Tokyo’s Sunright Tea Studio told the Los Angeles Times he is well situated because he is part of a chain of 12 shops that has a three- to four-month supply of boba since they can buy in bulk from a factory instead of a wholesaler.

But the shortage is affecting Fanale Drinks, which is the supplier for thousands of stores across the country. It’s the exclusive distributor for U.S. Boba., so any company that uses their tapioca balls is affected. That includes Boba Guys, which started a frenzy when it posted about the shortage on Instagram earlier this month.

In this Wednesday, March 3, 2021 photo, a high number of container ships dot the coast of Long Beach at sunset waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach off the California Coast. ( AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this Wednesday, March 3, 2021 photo, a high number of container ships dot the coast of Long Beach at sunset waiting to dock at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach off the California Coast. ( AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

“We’ve had major franchises and corporations reach out to us, looking to get popping boba and different things, and unfortunately it’s so hard and so scarce that we can’t service them right now,” Bigasan said.

He said the company is currently supplying boba to existing customers only.

The shipping backup-caused scarce supply isn’t the only problem. Panicked distributers in California and beyond are trying to get their hands on large quantities of boba amid the shortage.

“This has turned into the tissue paper,” Bigasan said, referring to the rush to buy toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic.

“We had 200 cases come in on Monday. By Wednesday, they were all sold out. By Friday, we had no boba,” he said. “Customers are calling like crazy, looking to buy 50 to 100 cases of boba at a time.”

The problem is only getting worse and may not let up for months.

“These next six weeks will be the worst, and the end of April to May will be the craziest,” Bigasan said. “For some businesses, I can say that it potentially can string into September or October, because of the chain reaction of throughout the industry.”

None of Fanale’s customers are going without boba so far, but they’re getting reduced supply.

“It’s been very difficult for a lot of franchises,” Bigasan said. “Some of the bigger shops and locations have really struggled.”

The video posted by Boba Guys on Instagram warns of the impending boba shortage.

“Ninety-nine percent of the world’s boba comes from Asia, mostly Taiwan. That means the whole country is running out of supply as we speak,” one of the founders says in the video. “Some companies are already running out and most will be out by the next week or so.”

Though the chain gets its boba from U.S. boba, which makes the tapioca balls in Hayward, they still need the starch from abroad.

“We’re trying to figure out where we can get tapioca from,” the other Boba Guys founders says in the video. “We’re trying to import from different means without ships, but it does mean that boba is gonna be out for a lot of us who run boba shops.”

David Fan owns several boba stores in the Bay area, and is the founder of Teaspoon, U.S. Boba and Fanale Drinks. He told KTLA it’s been hard for business to get supplies for many different items amid the shipping backlog that persisted throughout the pandemic.

“We’re all short right now,” he said. “Everything’s been taking turns, so it’s definitely been tough.”

The boba shortage comes at a time when demand for the bubble teas have increased — especially as the weather warms up and people want cold drinks.

As many customers who were hunkered down at home looked to delivery while stores were closed, Fan’s boba tea stores saw sales increase “across the board” amid the pandemic, he said.

Now, the boba shortage is like nothing the Fanale has seen before, according to Bigasan.

“I’ve been trying to relieve the anxiety as much as possible by letting them know that we’ll get through it and that hopefully we can continue to maintain enough to supply,” he said.

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