Pearls Boba: Why Family and Quality Means Everything for this Sacramento Cafe
Being originally from the Washington, D.C. area and then moving to the West Coast, I noticed that there was not a lot of boba spots in Sacramento either. (Fact check: There’s not a lot of boba in Sacramento Proper, but there’s a lot in South Sacramento.) In an effort to find a spot close to my neighborhood, I came upon Pearls Boba and Shaved Ice also known as Pearls, which is nestled in the heart of Sacramento. Their name Pearls originates from the Chinese characters 珍珠, which contain the double meaning of both "pearls" and "boba". The cafe itself was very vibrant with cute decor, offered a family-friendly vibe and had a pretty impressive menu of premium boba, shaved ice and even coffee.
I got a chance to sit down and speak with Pearl’s owner and entrepreneur, Grace Lee, who by the way is an oral surgeon, too! We spoke about the growing business and journey, and how Grace’s family played a big role in the process.
Can you briefly share how you started Pearls? Are you originally from the area?
GL: I’m from Elk Grove, but I reside in Sacramento now and work here, too. There isn’t a boba shop within a 15 mile radius in this neighborhood, so that was when my partner and I decided to open one here on Fair Oaks Boulevard.
We’ve been pretty much to every single boba shop here in California—North and South. We travelled to Southern California and got a lot of our inspiration and ideas from that. However, I didn’t want to make Pearls like the boba shops in South Sacramento. There’s a variety of flavors and that is what makes tea so interesting.
I think what we wanted to accomplish here at Pearls, was a place for everybody, not just for the Asian community. We wanted to have different flavored teas, so that it caters to patrons from all around the world.
Did you have a lot of trouble being as though boba was not popular in this area? Or was it just a natural fit that eventually grew?
GL: This area does not have a huge Asian community, so it wasn’t that everyone was not familiar with boba per se. Everybody loves Thai tea and so that was our most popular drink at Pearls for a while. In fact, for our Chai tea, I actually get tea marsala from a local Indian store and we brew the tea fresh. When people come in here and expect a Chai like the Starbucks’ ones, ours is different and it’s spicy. However, our baristas do a great job at explaining and telling them that this is the real Chai. The marsala brewed with Assam tea makes its so different. And once people knew that, they appreciated it.
I believe that one of the big differences between South Sacramento boba shops and here is that our boba is made every hour, they are really fresh and when you chew it, you know its fresh! The tapioca balls have to be flavored in the first 30 seconds once they stop cooking, otherwise the flavoring doesn’t get into the boba. They are soaked in natural raw cane sugar, which result in a delicious chewy and sweet consistency. There’s a whole technique behind it and we really perfected that process.
So who is helping you create these cool drink flavors?
GL: Actually, my sister-in-law, who is Pearl’s manager, has helped me. We both tasted over 100 teas! We try different brands and types, and then we narrowed it down to see what has the best flavor for the general public and of course, what we would enjoy. It took a whole year before we came up to do the whole menu. We also took a boba class in the Bay Area to get familiar with boba even more. We spent two days learning about boba teas, the temperature of teas and how to make them. We had to taste our own and modify them to our liking. A lot of the teas we drink are actually diluted out, so the teas we make here are super strong. You have to really like tea to drink it, and its not the typical iced tea you get. It’s really strong for some people.
We really appreciate the process and that its not your typical powder, scoop milk.
GL: We try to focus on natural products. Even our sugar is raw! At Pearls, we make our own sugar and don’t buy it. Raw sugar itself has more flavor, so we try to make our teas as natural as possible. We also have different options for people with restricted dietary needs, for example, we have half and half and soy, and alternatives for people who are dairy. Those who are lactose intolerant, the creamer that we make is not actual real milk—which is a standard for most boba drinks. We select our teas very carefully. We have to have everybody on staff to taste it and all approve.
You mentioned that you make teas from all around the world. I saw that you have butternut squash and mango smoothie, can you explain the inspiration behind that?
GL: Those are all 100 percent fruit smoothies, which we like to call Dr. Smoothies. So if you go to smoothie shops for instance like Jamba Juice, its not 100 percent fruit and is pre-made. Our products are 100 percent fruit. The butternut squash mango is like getting your daily dose of vitamins and it tastes so good! The shaved ice is more for the kids. Even the boba is a natural product that is good for you. I want to make vitamin gummy bobas one day, but I haven’t been able to figure that out yet!
We also have coffee. It’s an organic brown local roaster called Teranova. Its excellent coffee. In LA what is really hot is that everybody gets a shot of espresso in their milk tea. We’re a little behind the times here at Pearls, but someday we’ll have our coffee more readily available.
So one of your baristas actually mentioned that you are an oral surgeon. How do you balance the time to be an owner and an oral surgeon?
GL: My sister-in-law is here, so I don’t really manage the day to day. I am more of the advisor and also the creative. I designed and decorated this whole place myself. My other partner, who is also my partner at my office, he loves boba and shaved ice. So we have a passion for it, and it makes work so much fun.
So what can you say is your traffic like here? Is it mostly college students, business professionals?
GL: I designed this place with young people in mind. I want this to be hip and young for college and high schoolers where there’s a lot of energy in this place. Also, this whole neighborhood is about family, which is another focal point. I don’t know if you saw the dancers on our Instagram page, but that’s the kind of vibe we welcome. Most of our workers go to Sacramento State, so they have friends that come here and bring that whole inter-community connection.
What is Pearls looking like in the future?
GL: I think we’d definitely like to franchise it then. I’m looking at El Dorado Hills, or over by Rocklin out where they don’t have as much boba businesses. Our business is really growing and I think that we made a landmark for this original landmark. This actually used to be a massage parlor. So when people come here to visit, we are recognized as Pearls.
My kids are actually the ones doing Pearl’s Instagram, website and social media, and in this day and age, a lot of our exposure is through social media. In the coming years, we hope we’ll become more recognized and garner that brand recognition as a boba business. I’d like for Pearls to be the temple of boba tea!