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Bubble Tea Without Boba: Shortage Leaves Many Wondering When Tapioca Will Return

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First, it was toilet paper, then cleaning wipes, baking yeast, even ketchup packets. The pandemic has caused plenty of product shortages in the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now there is a national shortage of boba, the dark, chewy pearls of tapioca typically found in bubble tea, which...

DENISE GIRALDO-GORDON: ...Is a milk tea or a fruit tea - then you have these beautiful toppings. And they range from your typical pearls and red bean to really funky stuff like chia seeds and fruit.

KELLY: That is Denise Giraldo-Gordon in Brooklyn. As soon as she found out about the shortage, she ran to her closest tea shop to preview a boba-less future.

GIRALDO-GORDON: I got my first boba tea without pearls for the first time in my life. I never even considered not getting pearls and had a moment of, like, let me just see what this feels like.

SHAPIRO: Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It first came to the U.S. through Asian American communities, but now tea shops and boba fans are everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOBALIFE")

AILEEN XU: (Singing) We don't even have to try 'cause we're livin' boba life.

KELLY: Oliver Yoon is a vice president for the distributor Boba Direct. He says the current scarcity is due to logistics issues affecting many industries - too many shipments from Asia, not enough processing capacity in the U.S.

OLIVER YOON: What I hear from freight forwarders and the trucking industry is, we all need help. We need additional workers.

ABDURAHMAN SHARIF: In the past month, every week, we have to worry about, hey, we're running out of this flavor, this tapioca. We're running out of these items, even down to the straws.

SHAPIRO: That's Abdurahman Sharif, an owner of the Chi Tea shop in a Chicago suburb. His store opened only eight months ago.

SHARIF: Every week, we have to take a flavor off of our menu because we just don't have it, and we're not going to have it for two or three weeks now.

SHAPIRO: Going without boba might not be everyone's cup of tea, but you can add in other toppings.

YOON: There's coconut jellies. There's popping bobas, crystal bobas, you know, different toppings that can supplement for the time being.

KELLY: And for Denise Giraldo-Gordon, no boba was ultimately no problem.

GIRALDO-GORDON: And it was great. I didn't miss it at all. I just needed to prepare mentally.

KELLY: She may have to prepare mentally for a while. Oliver Yoon's best guess is the boba backlog will clear around midsummer.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANONS SONG "CALYPSO BOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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