Boba tea (also known as bubble tea) is a Taiwanese tea-based drink that traditionally contains milk or a similar creamer, with chewy tapioca “bubbles” that float to the bottom. The drink became popular in most parts of Asia in the 1980s and made its way to America’s west coast in the 1990s. Today, specialty Boba tea shops can be found in most major U.S. cities, and as of June 2019, you can even find it in Warroad, Minnesota at Boba Cottage.
Mani Harren, owner of Boba Cottage, has been living in Warroad for about 20 years. She became a mom in 2017 and wanted to focus on raising her son, Joseph Chakrit, at home. On top of being a full-time mom, she also works as a project manager for Warroad Community Development and volunteers to help found and lead the Millennium Lao Association in town. Harren has a passion for food, and even had the opportunity to work as a server under celebrity chef Takashi at the Slurping Turtle in Chicago while she was attending college for business. While there are a number of places in Warroad where you can go out and have a great meal, Harren noticed right away when she moved to town that options were limited in terms of cuisine diversity. Aside from the Sap Sap Kitchen and Mimi’s food trucks, which offer Laotian foods, egg rolls, lo mein, and fried rice, there was only one year-round place for locals and tourists to get authentic Asian food, Daisy Gardens, which closed its doors in 2018. With the support of her husband, Joseph, Harren left her job at Marvin in 2017 and decided to step in to help diversify Warroad’s food scene.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know how bubble tea was going to go over in Warroad,” said Harren, “but it’s a thing I know well, and we decided we needed to just go for it. Our numbers were better in our first year than we were expecting.” She brainstormed a number of different business models before landing on a bubble tea shop. Harren had worked at a bubble tea shop called Bubble Island in East Lansing, Michigan, and carried the knowledge, experience, and love for bubble tea with her ever since. Another appealing aspect of bubble tea was the low overhead costs needed to put together a quality Boba menu, and the ability to grow and add additional offerings down the road. Harren worked with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and consultants Grant Oppegaard and Deb McGregor at Warroad’s local Discovery and Development Hub to help work through the numbers. “Their help was really instrumental in completing my business plan and moving forward,” she said. Once her business plan was ready to go, the next step was finding a space.
Harren toured a few vacant spaces in Warroad to see where she could move in with minimal renovations. She found a space that had ample square footage, but the building needed around $30,000 in plumbing renovations alone to get it up to code. When she found her current location, which is just 284 square feet with only 76 of those square feet allocated to her kitchen, she knew she could get creative and make the space her own. “When I found out I would only need to invest about $8,000 in plumbing updates versus $30,000, I was ready to do big things in a small space,” said Harren.
Boba Cottage officially opened its doors on June 22, 2019, and sold out on the same day. Since that day, Harren has expanded her bubble tea flavor options and added a few Asian food items in limited quantities. She makes fresh egg rolls, maki, rice bowls, and baked cookies for customers to enjoy whether they stop in for a lunch break or an afternoon snack. Harren said she keeps in touch with her friend and advisor, Maxwell Zumwalt, who is a chef and owner of the newly opened Dokkdo in New York City. “I’m always texting him asking about recipes and other questions about running a restaurant. He’s been a big help throughout this process,” she said.
Quality is Harren’s number one priority when it comes to her business. She spends a lot of time sourcing her ingredients and making sure they are fresh and taste the way her cuisine is meant to taste. “I’d rather take a cut in profits than serve food that is not up to my standards,” said Harren. Her time spent learning about and exploring different foods while she was in Chicago has greatly influenced her everyday work now that she owns and operates her own restaurant. She is also focused on efficiency; everything she offers is quick and affordable. “When I was developing the menu, I was very mindful of pricing,” she said. “Growing up as a refugee status immigrant, my family didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a luxury like dining out. I wanted all families, including those like mine, to be able to afford coming out to eat.”
Most rewarding for Harren are the relationships she has built with her customers.
“Believe it or not I have regulars that I see in here every week,” she told us. “My customers will come in, order their favorite Boba drink and some food, and they enjoy just hanging out on the couches and talking to me while I keep cooking away.” Harren feels a strong sense of community among her customers, and has noticed that more and more her customers are getting to know each other as well. In the summertime, she also enjoys meeting the many tourists who come into town and stop in to try some Boba tea.
Harren said, “The ethos of my company is inclusivity and kindness, and I want all of my customers to feel that when they walk in the door.”
With Boba Cottage’s first successful year almost in the books, it is looking to expand its menu and hire additional part-time staff.