Cassava Boba: Washington, D.C.'s First-Of-Its-Kind Boba Pop Up
First things first, The Boba Social is super thrilled to launch a new spotlight series— showcasing a community of boba enthusiasts, one cup at a time. We will capture untold stories whether they are boba shop owners or bobaristas, and explore what goes on beyond those delectable tapioca-filled drinks that we devour each day. Be sure to check back again for upcoming spotlights, and if you’re interested in being featured, give us a holla!
Like us at The Boba Social, Cassava Boba’s co-founders Joanna Weedlun and David Cooper struggled to find quality-tea and boba tea shops in the nation’s capital. If you’re from Washington, D.C., our foodie city is immersed with cultural cuisine, but this particular beverage, not so much. We got a chance to meet up with the entrepreneurial brains behind the district’s first-of-its-kind boba pop up to chat about their pioneering spirit on becoming business owners and the importance of sourcing fresh, artisanal ingredients.
Can you briefly introduce yourselves and how you two met?
JW: We met in college at Rice University in Houston and lived in the same freshman dorms. Fun fact: I majored in architecture and David majored in mechanical engineering.
DC: We have been friends throughout the four years and both ended up moving back home to the Washington, D.C. area.
Just off curiosity, what was your first boba experience like?
JW: I tried it during my college orientation. My friends and I all went out for boba tea and frozen yogurt, and I didn’t like the tapioca at first. The texture freaked me out. Two years later, I became obsessed and took advantage of every opportunity to drink it! I even ended up running at a late night food cafe that sold boba tea. Coincidence, maybe?
DC: For me, I enjoyed chewing the tapioca pearls, but tasting the actual drink itself reminded me of sugary water. I also started a boba tea business prior to Cassava Boba on the Rice University campus. This opened my eyes to the tricks of the trade on the how to run a boba business. I was exposed to different suppliers and learned how to make a variety of drinks.
What was the inspiration behind Cassava Boba?
JW: We’re so driven to create products that taste natural, unlike the typical powder-based drinks, that we take the time to understand and learn about our ingredients. When we learned tapioca comes from cassava root, we fell in love with the word and it stuck in our heads.
DC: When we moved back here after college, we had conversations about starting a business and always wanted to do it over bubble tea. We couldn’t find any boba shops that we liked in the D.C. area. Through my experiences and Joanna’s combined, we decided to take our side hustle opportunity to another level and grow the business from there. In January 2017, we officially launched Cassava Boba in it’s early pop-up shop phase, and currently sell our boba tea in several farmer’s market locations in D.C.!
You seem to really pride on quality tea, can you share a little about where you get your ingredients from and the process of figuring out how to craft a perfect cup of boba tea?
JW: David is actually our sourcing expert. Basically, what we do is use loose-leaf teas for all of our teas, authentic Vietnamese coffee, and we don’t use artificial boba powders. For our dairy products, we source locally from Trickling Springs Organic Dairy. This goes for our fruits as well. For example, which is our pumpkin pie milk, we buy our pumpkins from another locally owned business: Barajas Produce. We want to be mindful of where the ingredients come from and support our community by sourcing from them. It truly makes a difference in the quality of our teas.
DC: Many boba tea shops get their tea from two general suppliers, but we actually get our teas from a supplier that has a more variety of teas. There are organic ones and the quality is a lot higher, making the taste even better. However, when crafting a perfect cup of boba, it can be quite a challenge. Not only because people here are more health conscious about what they put in their bodies, but quality milk makes a difference. From figuring out the right consistency and balance between different types of milk (whole, skim, 2%, etc.) , and then mixing it with the right blend of black tea (English, Irish, earl grey, etc.)— it’s definitely a process of trial and error!
“As two friends with passion for problem-solving, we decided it was time to make our own tea. Not only is boba tea delicious, but it also brings people together.”
What can you say has been the most challenging thing so far in running a business so far?
DC: I think sometimes especially in D.C. people are used to (let’s be honest…) bad boba, that when they see us, they automatically say “Oh, I don’t like bubble tea”. It can be a bit of a challenge, but sometimes we have to do a little bit of convincing so customers can think otherwise. This isn’t the instant milk tea powder and instant tapioca pearls thrown in. We actually take time to produce our product.
JW: I think educating our customers is also another one of our biggest challenges. We have to explain to everyone about the ingredients we are using. For instance, there’s a misconception out there about tapioca pearls themselves and that they are made of gelatin. When we tell them it’s gluten free, they won’t believe us! Another challenge, is our limitations on customizing our boba drinks, and making sure we please everyone’s dietary restrictions. There’s a coconut chai, which we use coconut milk for and that is a favorite for our vegan and lactose intolerant customers. Because of our current business model of selling out of markets, we have a more limited menu and can’t do all of the customizations that some boba shops do, like adjusting sweetness levels, so we do our best to please many different tastes with only a few set of flavors.
DC: Or even showing people how to put a straw in the cup correctly. There’s an art to poking the lid with your straw, you know?
We live in a world where everyone is starting their own business or side hustle, do you have any advice for them?
JW + DC: Just go for it and especially while you’re young with no commitments like a family, or spouse. Get used to not sleeping a lot. Many people think that owning your business is really glamourous. People also confuse owning a business with having a flexible schedule and it’s really not, more like an atypical schedule. We work weekends, whereas our friends work desk jobs with weekends off.
Where do you see Cassava Boba at in 5-10 years?
We’re definitely trying to open up a shop in the district! We’re not trying to become the “Starbucks” of boba. We think that seat is already taken. Nonetheless, we will continue to build our business one step at a time.
In the district? Stop by one of Cassava Boba’s pop up shop locations including the Freshfarm CityCenterDC Market, Freshfarm Foggy Bottom Market, and so many more. Visit their website and be sure sure to follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Interview by Catherine Llamido
Photography by Carla Clemente