It looks like the bubble tea craze is here to stay. It sort of died at one point of time, but it has since bounced back stronger than ever with the emergence of new players and well-known global franchises.
The drink was first introduced to Singapore in 1992. The local bubble tea scene was drastically different back then, according to Woobbee manager Benjamin Lim.
Bubble tea as a fast takeaway idea (did not fly) back then. (It) was only served in a bubble tea cafe setting and in glass cups. Customers would come in, order a glass of bubble tea, (and enjoy live song performances).– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
He added that renowned bubble tea brands like Koi and Gong Cha were still starting up in Singapore in 2010, and there was a lack of local brands that specialised in bubble tea.
Noting this gap, Irene Low decided to jump on the opportunity to start her own bubble tea brand called Woobbee. The name is derived from the word ‘wu bi’, which stands for ‘unbeatable’ in Chinese.
She invited groups of friends over to do tasting and sampling, getting firsthand feedback on her recipes. That was also how she got acquainted with Benjamin, who later became her business partner.
In terms of experience, both of them were briefly exposed to the F&B industry. Irene used to work part-time in a bubble tea cafe, while Benjamin is a former steward for Singapore Airlines.
Benjamin said that he would have partnered Irene when she first started up, but he had just embarked on a new career then. It wasn’t the “right time”, but he used it as an opportunity to build on his startup capital.
He quit the corporate world about 5 years later, and finally decided to partner Irene in 2013 to expand Woobbee further.
Opens First Outlet At CBD
At age 28, Irene opened the first outlet in August 2010 at Tanjong Pagar Plaza, which is in the heart of the Central Business District.
It wasn’t easy starting up, as Irene had to “find and convince various (people) to fund her business idea,” shared Benjamin.
Moreover, since they weren’t a franchise, they had to slowly establish their SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) in drink preparations.
Staff training was equally tough as staff had to quickly learn the ropes and recipes to fix the 40 to 50 drinks offered in our initial menu.– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
Teething issues aside, customer response to the outlet was surprisingly good.
“Crowds quickly swamped the outlet as word (about a new bubble tea store) spread in the neighbouring CBD areas,” said Benjamin.
They Created Unique Flavours Like Pei Pa Koa
At Woobbee, they take a lot of pride in the quality of their drinks. They only use raw sugar to prepare their drinks, and each cup of tea is freshly brewed instead of using premix milk teas.
“Raw sugar production generally involves lesser processing and chemical bleaching compared to fructose and white sugar,” explained Benjamin.
They also strive to incorporate local flavours into their bubble teas, such as Herbalmint, Pink Guava with Plums, and Grape Yakult.
Their best-seller is Herbalmint, which remains their signature drink since it was launched in 2013. Its main ingredient is Pei Pa Koa, a traditional Chinese natural herbal remedy used to relieve sore throat and coughs.
We both like Pei Pa Koa. It was a stroke of genius when we added it to our milk tea. To our surprise, it tasted really good together!– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
A regular-sized drink costs $4.10, while a large-sized one costs $5.80.
In late 2018 and 2019, the drink “really picked up steam as a company in the United States decided to sell it as their Christmas special,” which brought about a sudden wave of social media hype.
Benjamin credits the ingenious drink idea to Irene, who is the brains behind the curation of Woobbee’s menu and recipes, though he also contributes ideas from time to time.
The duo typically launch new drink offerings three to four times in a year.
Opened Two Outlets In A Single Year
Fast forward to today, Woobbee has five outlets in Singapore . This year alone, it opened at one-north and Jewel Changi — the latter is a collaboration outlet.
“We have always wanted to cover more ground in Singapore (but) we have always been limited by our working capital. (Moreover), the bubble tea market is getting more saturated in recent years.”
After careful considerations and securing sufficient funds, they decided to expand out of the CBD in late 2018 with their Fusionopolis outlet.
Just as we were about to open the new outlet in March, we were offered the option to do a collaboration shop within Jewel. The ‘one-of-a-kind’ concept was to (merge) toys, food, drinks, retail and F&B (under one roof).
It recently opened in July to much fanfare and “has been very well-received since its opening,” said Benjamin.
Commenting on business expansion strategies, Benjamin said that finding the right shop location is tough.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” location. It’s all about striking a “balance (between) rental rates and crowd flow,” he stressed.
High rent and excellent footfall doesn’t (always translate to) proportionate conversion and sales, so you have to always walk the ground and visit the location at various timings of the day (first) before coming to a conclusion.– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
Benjamin adds that every penny earned at Woobbee is reinvested back into the business to grow it.
Business has grown slowly, but steadily over the last few years. In the last two to three years, we have seen about 10 to 15 per cent growth in our gross revenues year-on-year.– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
Manpower Remains A Huge Challenge
Hiring and retaining staff is a huge business challenge, lamented Benjamin.
We tried part-timers, full-timers, recruitment agencies… (We realised that) hiring by word-of-mouth is still the easiest and best method of recruitment. Part-timers are good to have, but (they are only) a temporary solution. Full-time staff and permanent help is still the best way forward.– Benjamin Lim, manager of Woobbee
In terms of staff retention, Benjamin believes that you have to treat staff well for them to respect you, which will naturally convert to staff loyalty.
Sharing future business plans, Benjamin says that they are looking to expand their reach islandwide instead of focusing on the CBD area.
Currently, their goal is to open shops in both the North and West areas.
Beyond Singapore, Woobbee also has ambitions to go overseas. They have two potential master franchise deals to Japan and China that’s ongoing at the moment, according to Benjamin.
If an opportunity arises, he said they would like to expand to other concepts and possibly even venture into B2B business.
When asked to share a piece of business advice, Benjamin said that it’s important to focus on the product first before anything else.
While a good product has the ability to sell itself, it does not mean that other areas should be overlooked.
Every aspect of building a brand, or business, is sheer hard work. To succeed, you need to be willing to “get [your] hands dirty” and “be prepared for sweat, blood and tears,” advised Benjamin.
Featured Image Credit: Woobbee