In late 2016, when Chatime simultaneously opened two locations (Jasper Ave. and Whyte Ave.), it was to little press and with almost no fanfare—though some Edmontonian bubble tea connoisseurs were aware of Chatime and poised to begin enjoying the city’s first taste of the Taiwanese chain. Both stores seem to have enjoyed almost instantaneous success, and in late May, a third Chatime quietly opened in South Edmonton Common.
The new store’s high ceilings, L-shape layout, and non-flashy decor based around unstained wood and concrete creates a calm—even serene—atmosphere unusual for a chain restaurant. Live plants, panelled walls, and minimalist pop music contribute to the ambience, enjoyed by shoppers of all ages and backgrounds, though it seems the store is especially popular with teenagers.
“A lot of times people come because of the brand,” Monica Ly, the store’s manager, says. “The brand sells itself.”
Chatime, which opened its first stores in Taiwan in 2003, now has over 1,000 locations worldwide, including several in Alberta, B.C., and Ontario.
Ly says that “every bubble tea franchise has a little bit of a twist,” and that Chatime is a “luxury brand” which uses only superior ingredients and makes everything they serve fresh in store. However, when asked about the franchise’s suppliers—in particular about whether the store sources any of its ingredients locally—she says, “we stick to our own manufacturers.”
For Ly, a native of Vancouver, Chatime feels close to home. “It’s huge in B.C.,” she says, going on to note that many of the bubble tea cafes that have been open in Edmonton for years “just put [tapioca] pearls in fruit smoothies”—omitting the ‘tea’ in bubble tea altogether.
According to Ly, only drinks that combine brewed tea with bubbles—also called “pearls” or “bulba”—can be properly called bubble tea, which at Chatime can be made with black, earl grey, or even brown rice tea. In addition to the large, dark, and chewy tapioca pearls that many people are familiar with, Chatime also offers bulba made of coconut jelly, coffee jelly, grass jelly, red bean, and aloe vera.
Edmontonians have been quick to adopt even some of the more unfamiliar flavour pairings and ingredients available at Chatime. Some of the top sellers at the South Edmonton Common store include grass jelly roasted milk tea, taro milk tea, red bean milk tea, Taiwan mango juice, and a matcha red bean smoothie. Drinks are customizable, not only in terms of tea/bubble combinations, but also in terms of sweetness: customers can order any drink with zero percent up to 100 percent sugar values.
Other offerings on the menu include “Chatime Jelly,” juices in flavours like kumquat and pomelo-honey, smoothies, mousse, and “Oriental Pop Tea”—a shot of concentrated tea brewed to order and under pressure, then combined with other ingredients to make a full-size drink.
In cities where bubble tea is a more established staple, similar to Starbucks, Ly says, “It’s a substitute for your coffee in the morning.”
While Alberta, as usual, is a year or two behind on the bubble tea trend, the success of Chatime in Edmonton seems to be a sign that the locals are ready to catch up in a big way. In fact, several more stores are slated to open in the city within the year.
As far as Ly is concerned, the more bubble tea, the better.
“Chatime is going to be in every single part of Edmonton,” she says.