If you don't know the store name, you certainly know the line that can frequently be seen streaming from the corner of First and B Street in downtown San Mateo.
Tpumps is Redwood City resident Alex Su’s own local boba tea shop, serving cold milk tea drinks in either green or black tea, hot and ice teas and smoothies. Customers have the option including boba in their beverages, which are marble sized cooked tapioca balls.
These long lines have trickled all the way up to San Francisco, where a new Tpumps storefront opened on Irving Street last week.
When Su first opened Tpumps 106 South B Street in June 2011, he didn’t anticipate the almost cult following he has received from the community, even with Tpumps fan videos popping up on YouTube.
“The response has been overwhelming, especially for a guy who never run a retail store before,” Su said. “It’s been a big challenge; there’s a learning curve.”
The Los Angeles native served as the director of the shipping company Topocean for 10 years prior to opening Tpumps, which he has also integrated into the Tpumps store. The retail shop’s shipping center is called Tpumps Express Shipping Center. He said he “can do shipping with my eyes closed,” so he figured he might as well include it in the shop.
“I used to work in a corporate office and I drank too much coffee,” Su said. “I was overweight and started to drink a lot of tea. It helped me lose my appetite and was part of a healthier lifestyle. The more I drank, the more I enjoyed it and thought that maybe it would be a good idea to sell loose leaf tea in a Peet’s coffee type store.”
He initially didn’t want to include tapioca in the drinks since he felt it might be a distraction from the taste of the teas, but realized people seemed to enjoy boba pearls. He is still adamant about not including other jellies, flavors or toppings in the drinks, so that the taste of the fresh brewed tea is still the most dominant feature of his beverages.
“You can taste the difference between pre-made and fresh brewed tea,” he said. “I’m hoping to educate my customers on how to drink better quality tea.”
Su even hosted his first one-hour tea tasting classes at the San Mateo store in January of this year for $2 a person in the mornings. He has plans to have more classes at the store after the busyness of the new store opening settles down and he has trained his managers to teach the classes. Since the location is small he said he could only hold two classes with five people in each.
“My team members are Tpumps customers and I couldn’t have any better team members,” he said. “They love and enjoy the products and pour their hearts into making good drinks. It’s easy for them to see the customers’ point of view. It makes them try much harder to make them. The tea is really not so unique, but what sets us apart is the staff.”
Su said his business has the advantage that he hasn’t had to worry about costs as much as other business owners starting out since he had money saved up from his work as a shipping company director. Because of this, he said he has been able to use higher quality loose leaf tea, as opposed to competitors who he said use cheaper powders and tea bags.
“Business owners are eager to make money, so it’s easy to lose focus,” Su said. “The bottom line is that customers want a good product. The satisfaction is much better than working in a corporate office. You don’t hear: ‘I really appreciate your fast deliveries!’ from customers in the shipping industry.”
He said that his vision for the store is not just for it to be a mom and pop shop, but to also bring a good social spot to town to enjoy high quality tea. Su wants to add tables to the store in the future, so people can sit down and take time to enjoy the drinks.
Su said that technology has helped business as well. Their FiveStars Rewards swipe cards make it easier for customers to keep track of when they’re up for free drinks and other Tpumps products. He added that using the app debit and credit card reader Square makes it easy for small business owners to keep costs down a lot. He also notes that Tpumps' social media presence – on Facebook and Instagram – have been helpful in attracting more customers.
He said he likes to give back to local high schools, UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University and other schools to show support for Tpumps fans.
Tpumps is open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tpumps’ regular 24-ounce sized drink is $2.50, while the larger 32-ounce “pumbo” goes for $3.50. Flavors include Strawberry and Peach, while teas include Oolong and Ti Kwan Ying.
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