We had the good fortune of connecting with Thomas Liu and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Thomas, every day, we about how much execution matters, but we think ideas matter as well. How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Before I started Loose Leaf Boba Company, I was actually selling out of a swap meet in West Covina, CA in early 2012. At the the time I was doing it with my girlfriend Jasmine ( Co-Founder of Loose Leaf). She was a senior in High School & I was a freshman in College. We got the idea of selling boba at the swap meet from sitting outside a local boba shop where we saw that it wasn’t just Asians that were enjoying these unique drinks. It was everyone. For so long, it remained very niche. Boba to Asian Americans was something we grew up with. That Boba “Culture” is part of the Asian American Identity & Experience. Seeing people outside of the community finally starting to accept warm, gooey, chewy, little balls in their drinks is huge… At least to me it was. I admit that when we started selling at the Swap Meet, there was no purpose but to make some extra cash to go out on some dates. But as I got to engage, educate, & meet the guests we serve; I fell in love with it. It was a way for me to share a piece of my cultural upbringing with the world. Sharing culture & brining people together through food & drinks.
Fast forward 5 years. I was sitting inside one of those fancy “Third Wave” coffee shops. At this time, I had just stepped down from my very first brick and mortar store. I was moving on to create a different Boba Concept but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I secured a space in Long Beach, but the menu was not even drafted. As I was going through the menu of this coffee shop, I noticed that they showed what brand of milks they use & carry. I was surprised of the quality of milk they use. I mean Straus Organic Milk is like $8 a gallon. They stated that they use ” Simple Syrup”. To a boba shop owner, that was very fascinating because the only thing we ever use is fructose. I did more research on Third Wave Coffee and I was inspired. A lot of these small shops pride themselves on transparency, quality, & spready the love of “Coffee Culture”.
So I decided to adopt that Third Wave model into creating my menu for Loose Leaf Boba Company. We had to make sure everything we used were either house-made ingredients from scratch or had the least amount of additives. We had to source the best milk, the best teas, & the boba. We made many of our drink bases from scratch & yes ….. we made simple syrup. How do I create a more elevated experience while sharing Boba Culture with the people in the community. Sharing a piece of my cultural upbringing with my guest and giving each guest a cultural experience to remember. All this means we were breaking the traditional mold of what a Boba shop should be. Obviously, the drinks we will be making will be a lot lighter in taste since we don’t use any powders & less fruity (as in artificial fruit flavors) because we don’t use syrups. I was very nervous & fearful that this idea could flop. During that moment in time I thought I was the only one doing this type of concept but little did I know that there was a small chain from the Bay Area that was doing a similar concept. And when they opened their first store in Los Angeles, I was assured that this type of concept can work. Aside from the fear, I thought it was pretty cool to be part of a new wave of Boba Concept. “Third Wave Boba”.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
Loose Leaf Boba Company, is a company run by young individuals who have a dream to change the world through Boba. What sets us apart from most is we really value Culture, Community, & Transparency.
We want to bring the world closer by sharing culture. There’s been so much divide & hate in recent events that have been wreaking havoc in so many communities across the country. We want to be a brand where we can help bridge that divide or in someway take the first step in creating dialogue. We are not just a regular boba shop, we want to use our drinks in a way for people to explore a different cultural experience that they may not be use to but also indulge in something that is somewhat familiar. Every single person regardless of race, gender, or identity have 1 thing in common… we all love food/drinks. What better way to learning about each other than through food/drinks? We pull ingredients/recipes from all over the world & incorporate them into our drinks. Sometimes we have guests who come to try our drinks for the very first time and it brings back childhood memories of being in their home country. Or when you get someone to try something they’ve never tried before & they completely enjoy it. That’s what we are here to do.
Community is very important to us. We make it our goal to make an impact in whatever community we operate in. Whether it’s taking a stand for social causes or just giving a helping hand when the community needs it. And when we talk about community we want to include the very people who work with us. Let’s go back to us saying we want to change the world. Changing the world starts with the very team members who help make the vision possible. It starts with empowering & giving the our team opportunities to grow, especially BIPOC, LGBTQ community, & Women in our team. It starts by making sure we implementing changes to put us on a path to give our team members a living wage & benefits. It’s a stretch, and we know it. But we are making it as transparent as we can. These are our goals.
When we talk about transparency, it’s about the quality & honesty in the ingredients we use for our drinks. We make everything in-house & we do not hide anything from our guests. Transparency is how we operate from top to bottom. From how to make our drinks, to the decisions we make, & to how we communicate our goals.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Disneyland of course!! In honesty, I would show them my hometown here in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles City. The main reason is the food. I am a food entrepreneur, I am Asian, & I am Foodie (the type that doesn’t take nice pictures), so San Gabriel Valley is the spot to be. It’s Asian food heaven & it’s has a very diverse Asian community.
Definitely want to hit up some Burmese Restaurants for the Fermented Tea Leaf Salad. If you’ve never had it before, ITS FIRE.
There are many places to grab it in there area but there’s this little Mom & Pop called Yoma Myanmar in Monterey Park, CA that has been there for ages. The place is little old but the food is still amazing.
Another place I would hit up is this place called Golden Bull Noodle located in The Square Food Court in Rosemead, CA. It’s another Mom & Pop that’s been there forever. “Noodle” might be in the name but they are known for the Bone-In Hainan Chicken with Rice. It’s one of the most authentic Hainan Chicken Rice places here in the San Gabriel Valley.
While we are in the same food court, we’ll definitely get some Wonton Noodle Soup right next door called Harlam’s Kitchen. It’s one of the best Cantonese style noodles shops that good for break, brunch, or lunch. Its one the the business little shops in the food halls.
Then we’ll finish it off with some boba at Tea Station on Valley Blvd in San Gabriel, CA. One of the first boba shops in California & probably America. There’s dozens of boba shops in that intersection alone, but definetly want to keep it O.G.. So Tea Station would be the final stop. Popcorn Chicken & Jasmine Green Tea will be good for me. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I started selling Boba with Jasmine since 2012 when she was in High School. And today we are still selling Boba. Running and growing a business with your significant other isn’t the easiest. Taking risks, scarping by to grow the business, running in to personal financial problems, & to constant fear of going bankrupt is definitely healthy. And we were both parents of 2 children & going to college full time with my very first store that I left in 2017 to start Loose Leaf. So for that, I definitely want to give a shoutout to the my wife & co-founder of Loose Leaf, Jasmine. Been there every step of the way supporting me through this journey of losses and wins. Gary V always say that you cannot be afraid to “Eat $#!T”, and I’ve kept that phrase very close to me.
When I opened up Loose Leaf Boba Company in Long Beach we were struggling for the first and a half. We started with only $5000 of operating capital because that was all the money we had left. We weren’t really paying ourselves. There were times where we had to delay paychecks because we didn’t have enough money in the bank. Many times we would overdraft and we would scramble to find ways to fund the account before all the checks start bouncing. When the end of the month would come by, the fear of not having enough for rent & all the expenses would kick in. We had to operate lean and grind it out. It wasn’t fun but it being broke that ultimate pulled us out. A quick shout out to Daymond John’s book called “The Power of Broke”.
As my business started picking up, I really wanted to make a big impact. I wanted to use my business as a platform to share culture. I am really inspired by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos ( a online shoe store). He believed what he was selling was not shoes but some sort of human connection. His model was “delivering happiness”. And I wanted to draw from his idea of “delivering happiness” and morph it in to our own by “sharing culture”.