Opening a bubble-tea shop during a pandemic might seem like a risky move. But for Worcester’s Hannah Vuong, 31, it was the culmination of a longtime dream. She and her husband, Jason, loved to stop into Taiwanese chain Gong Cha whenever they visited Boston. When he lost his banking job at the beginning of the pandemic, the couple got to work opening their own branch of the franchise in downtown Worcester, with support from the city. They’ll open a second location at 270 Newbury St. this spring.
Their 3- and 6-year-old children are their biggest fans (and critics).
“They’re bubble tea critics. They try and say, ‘I think I like Gong Cha better,’” Vuong says, laughing.
You and your husband had other full-time jobs before this. What made you decide to open a bubble-tea shop?
My husband, Jason, had been in banking for like 10 years. I was in health care management. We both love tea, but especially Gong Cha tea. It’s a bubble-tea brand, world-renowned. It’s on almost every continent, and I think they’re reaching almost 2,000 locations now. It originated in Taiwan.
We have four different tea flavors: oolong tea, black tea, green tea, and Earl Grey tea. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but you most likely have. It’s the milk tea with the boba pearls. … You can also have it in fruit flavors as well, like a mango tea or a passion fruit tea, without the creamer.
We would go out to eat in Boston a lot. Our routine was to always, no matter where we ate, to just stop at Gong Cha tea right after. Then Jason’s job got moved to Worcester, and he worked in the downtown area. He was like: ‘You know what, I feel like we really need one here.’ So I looked into it, because I’ve always wanted to open a business, and we really love this brand. And we really stand strong by it, because we’ve never been disappointed by it. We contacted the franchise, got some more information, and we found a good location. Jason ended up losing his job during the pandemic.
It was really hard because we started out in 2019, and then when we got everything approved to start to build, in March 2020, everything was shut down. And that’s when he lost his job and everything. And we’re like, you know, ‘We’re in too deep and have to keep doing it.’ We opened in September 2020.
For people who aspire to open their own business: Was it hard, financially? How were you able to do it during a pandemic?
The pressure was getting high. I mean, we had a little bit of savings. The city helped us a lot. We went to City Hall, and they actually helped us look for a spot. And then because of what’s going on with the city, they wanted to really help small business owners grow. They gave us a grant, a lot of little grants, helping us with signage and furniture. And then they directed us to something called the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network. … We went there, and they helped us write our business plan; they helped us do projections. And with that, we used those numbers to get a loan from the Small Business Administration. And with that, we were able to finance our project with a small down payment. That was really helpful.
Did it feel scary for you, mentally?
When the shutdown happened, oh my God, I was getting panicky. Anxiety. My chest was hurting. I kept thinking I had COVID. I’d never experienced that feeling before. I was really stressed out. I’m like: ‘Oh my gosh, we put all our savings into this, and now I don’t know when we’ll open.’
I almost felt like giving up because I didn’t know how long this was going to last. Were we going to run out of money? We still had to pay rent. Jason never once thought that. We already put so much into this, we just have to keep doing it, pivot, and change things around. We were going to have to figure out how to do this during the pandemic. It was really difficult.
Luckily, with our business model, takeout is very easy with DoorDash, Uber Eats, all of those things. So we were able to stay open the whole time.
What’s the food scene like in Worcester versus Boston?
Boston is more dense; there’s a lot of people in and out every day. It’s more fast-paced than Worcester. But it’s more challenging to me than Worcester. Worcester, luckily, we started here. Boston would’ve been more of a challenge for us. Even though it’s a city, it’s very community-like. We were able to speak with people in the city who were able to support us in ways like finding the right contractors or helping us with buying things and how to start to open, how to run certain things. In Worcester, they’re trying to help a lot of people take that step. They really want to grow. I don’t know if you’ve been to Worcester, but it’s changed so much in the past couple years.
What’s it like now?
Especially in downtown, the stadium opened up right next to us. We have the Canal District with so many different foods and vendors and desserts and drinks in the marketplace. …
Where we are is also becoming very diverse. They’re making it more pedestrian-friendly. They are rebuilding all the plazas, all the streets here. We do have a lot of colleges here, actually, and working people downtown. For example, on our street now, down the street from us, there is a ramen place that just opened up, too. And then, in between us, there’s a Mediterranean restaurant we go to all the time. We have a really good variety just within a walking distance. And all of us got a lot of support from the city for that.
I love Boston a lot, even though I live here. Hopefully, one day, I can go back to Boston, because I love it. I like the fast pace. I feel like with the experience we gained from this first location here and the support we had here, our heart will always be here. But we want to take on that challenge next with Newbury.
What differentiates Gong Cha from other tea shops?
First of all, the quality. I even felt this way before I opened it. I tried so many other brands. Every brand has their own taste, but what differentiates it is the quality. Each flavor, you can literally smell the difference, the aroma when you drink it as well.
The other thing that I love is the variety that we have. It’s suitable for anybody; it can go from sweet to intense to mild. Gong Cha comes out with these series every season, but right now we have hot brown sugar ginger milk tea. Once in a while, you want to switch it up, and they’re always constantly coming up with those new flavors and something else to try every season. I think that’s what keeps us different and still keeps us authentic.
What brought you to this area?
My family immigrated to Washington, D.C., from Vietnam when I was 4 years old in 1995. Then we moved to Leominster, Massachusetts. Then I went to college in Boston. I did know people in Worcester in between high school and college times. That’s where I met my husband; that’s where he and his family have been for 30-plus years.
How is to work with your husband?
Oh, God. It’s very difficult, but at the same time, honestly, we really try to keep it professional, especially in front of our staff. We try to talk to each other in a very professional way, you know: Work is work. But, to be honest with you, at the end of the day, we’re still a married couple so there’s times you can’t help it — it comes out.
The upside of working together is you’re both doing this for your family and for each other. You’re building something together — not just working, you know, as a working relationship, but everything you do and the decisions you make. We’re both driven the same way.
Where do you eat when you’re not working?
Oh, that’s a really tough one. Oh my gosh, in Worcester, we actually love to go together as a family to this very authentic pho restaurant that’s older than me. It’s on Green Street. It’s called Hien-Vuong. In Boston, we go to hot pot a lot. That became a tradition: We always go to Shabu Zen and Gong Cha after.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.