How are SoCal Boba Shops Handling the Strawpocalypse?

Non-plastic boba straws are in the limelight now that the city of Los Angeles is considering a broader disposable straw ban, one that would impact cafes, fast food franchises and other casual joints. (Photo by Dakota Kim / LAist)

LOS ANGELES – There wasn’t much fuss when California’s plastic straw ban kicked in on New Year’s Day, probably because the state law only impacts full-service restaurants. Now, the city of Los Angeles is considering a broader disposable straw ban, one that would impact cafes, fast food franchises and other casual joints. Although the proposed regulation, which would go into effect in 2021, means upheaval for the hospitality industry, local boba shops aren’t breaking a sweat.

In the San Gabriel Valley, SoCal’s boba epicenter, they’re not only prepared for the Strawpocalypse, they’re ahead of local officials.

At Bopomofo Cafe, recently opened in San Gabriel, co-owner Eric Wang says they are currently using paper straws but will move to Sabert’s compostable straws in the future.

Elton Keung, owner of experimental San Gabriel boba shop Labobatory, which serves trend-bucking drinks like Chinese cough syrup boba green tea and Speculoos cookie butter boba milk tea, is ahead of the straw ban — although he doesn’t have to follow it.

Elton Keung (right), owner of experimental San Gabriel boba shop Labobatory, holds one of the shop’s custom reusable straws. (Photo by Dakota Kim / LAist)

In November, Keung commissioned Simply Straws, an Orange County-based boracylicate (Pyrex) glass straw company to manufacture glass boba straws, branded with Labobatory’s name. Simply Straws says it has seen glass boba straw sales quadruple in the past year.

Keung says the first run of 200 Labobatory-branded 8-inch glass straws, which were priced at $6 dollars and included a free drink, sold out within a week of their November arrival. The challenge, aside from keeping them in stock, is that the straws lack an angled tip. A barista must pierce a hole in the cup prior to serving it. Nonetheless, Keung has commissioned the production of a longer, 10-inch batch.

“We use boba tops that don’t require straws too,” Keung says. “Whatever the straw ban, we can adapt.”

Some employees are still unaware that the statewide ban began January 1.

“We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet,” an employee at Bubble Republic in San Gabriel said at the shop on January 10. “When does it go into effect?”

Within Los Angeles city limits, several shops are selling metal boba straws.

A boba tea from Labobaory, with one of the shop’s custom reusable straws. (Photo by Dakota Kim / LAist)

Boba Guys, which helped craft San Francisco’s strict no-PLA straw ban, debuted its new stainless steel, BPA-free metal straw at its two locations — Culver City and Echo Park — on February 1, although it is already available online. Customers can now purchase the metal straw, with accompanying brush, for $5 and reuse it at the shop, where it will be cleaned by the store. Engraved with “Boba Guys,” the item boasts a rare feature for a reusable boba straw: it has a pointy tip to pierce drinks. Co-owner Andrew Chau says the company requested this feature from their straw producer.

Some shops are finding that the biodegradable straws they want are hard to come by. Small-batch, slow-cooked tapioca shop Percolate, with locations in Hollywood, Los Feliz and West L.A., is waiting for backordered paper boba straws from Aardvark, which jumped in popularity after California’s straw ban went into effect.

In the meantime, Percolate is selling reusable metal boba straws that earn customers free add-ons each time they’re used. Percolate is also looking at the larger environmental picture by using recycled plastic cups and loose leaf teas that require less packaging.

Although Boba Guys is debuting single-use, fully-biodegradable bamboo straws in its shops, Chau doesn’t think it’ll be a problem to get boba fans to carry reusable metal straws.

“In Asia, people have a pack that looks like a holster that carries their straws, and a few people who come to our shops already bring their own straws,” Chau says. “If you can bring your own cups, you can bring your own straws.”

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When it comes to straws, Chau is a radical. While PLA straws, which are generally made from corn starch, cassava or sugarcane, are a step up from plastic straws, he thinks they’re not good enough. They require long composting times of three to six months and these microplastics still enter the ecosystems of vulnerable animals. Chau wants L.A.’s City Council to follow San Francisco’s lead and pass a ban that would include PLA straws, requiring restaurants to upgrade to disposable bamboo or reusable glass and metal straws.

“The only negative in the short term of reusable straws is getting used to the feel and taste,” Chau says. “So people need to think about the big picture. Think of the plastic bag ban.”

Earlier in 2018, boba shop owners including Labobatory’s Keung, upon hearing about the plastic straw ban, worried that environmentally sustainable straws would be financially unsustainable.

Taiwanese immigrants were among the first boba shop owners in Southern California, and their children continue to own and manage many of these businesses. Lyn Chen, who owns Boba Shop in Santa Monica, worried last year that, at a usage rate of 2,000 straws per month, the 100% cost increase of compostable straws would hurt her bottom line. But shops across the city seem to have adapted and thanks to the popularity of boba, companies like Simply Straws, Aardvark and Lollicup innovated quickly.

“Boba will always be popular,” Keung says. “We are ready to weather any storm that California brings.”

Some shop owners want L.A.’s City Council to follow San Francisco’s lead and pass a ban that would include PLA straws, requiring restaurants to upgrade to disposable bamboo or reusable glass and metal straws. (Photo by lirialove/Flickr Creative Commons)