Labobatory: Raising the Boba Bar | KCET
Labobatory: Raising the Boba Bar
Labobatory in San Gabriel hopes to stand out among the threshold, with its custom craft boba and alcoholic drinks.
“Boba has improved pretty significantly over the years, but there has yet to be true innovation … and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said 28-year-old Elton Keung, the owner and self-titled “BobaMaster” behind the new Labobatory.
“I describe myself as somewhere between the spectrum of normal person, and a hardcore tea person, maybe a snob,” he joked. “But I always knew I'd be starting a business that I would grow to love, a lot.”
Originally from New Jersey, Keung remembers being the only Asian kid in school. His dad’s job ended up moving his family to Southern California, where he admits experiencing a bit of culture shock.
Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, a mecca for Asian food and cultural community, Keung remembers hanging out with his friends at the original, early 2000’s boba shops like Lollicup, Tapioca Express, Quickly and 85 Degrees Teahouse on Valley (now called ID Cha House).
“Boba culture consists of high school kids who grew up around this area, like myself, doing homework and hanging out at boba shops after school — but like now, they’re also really into League of Legends and going to raves,” Keung laughs. “I do like those, but I’m old now.”
“But those same kids are grown up and still drinking boba milk tea. The culture grows up with you.”
Keung went to USC, where he graduated in 2011 with a degree in business entrepreneurship. It was during his senior year of college that he was interning at Chinatown’s Starry Kitchen and brainstormed the idea of alcoholic boba drinks.
“I was hanging out at the Le Abre Tea House with my roommate, right after we turned 21, and we were at this boba place thinking, how come we’re not at a bar?!” Keung recalled. “We were sitting there thinking, this place should totally sell alcohol!”
The concept of a modern, social teahouse — serving alcoholic boba drinks — took root in Keung’s mind.
He worked on a business plan during his last semester, attended both bartender and entrepreneur classes (where he learned the basics of making drinks and running a business), and “conducted research” by visiting the growing selection of boba shops around L.A. County. Shortly after graduating in December 2011, his original idea came to fruition.
Keung first began experimenting with craft and alcoholic boba drinks at college parties and in a pop-up bar setting. The idea, he remembered, was considered “almost mythical” at the time, with his pop-up getting reviews like “best boba in L.A.,” “match made in gastronomical heaven,” and “a revolution for my mouth” from places like TripAdvisor and BuzzFeed.
“Alcoholic boba is my signature craft and product, and I built my reputation here with it,” Keung shared. “I’ve found that everything [liquor, beer] works with boba.”
Boba 7: the Speakeasy That Once Was
Keung is known for his original craft and alcoholic boba creations, which he made famous in his first store in downtown Los Angeles: Boba 7, a speakeasy boba shop tucked behind Thai cuisine Soi 7 on 7th St, a block from Pershing Square.
First opened in July 2012, Boba 7 was a hit for four and a half years, serving the downtown after-work crowd and attracting celebrity customers like Alyson Hannigan, Oscar De La Hoya and Joe Jonas, and regular clientele including The Fung Brothers and Jeremy Lin.
With signature names and creative flavors like Green Tea Heineken, Barack Bobama, Bobagasm and Taro Mezcal, it’s hard to forget a place like Boba 7 and its soju-based cocktails.
The shop eventually closed at the end of 2016 for financial reasons — and a recent surge of competitive boba shops, including CoCo’s and 85°C Bakery Café, opening in downtown. The low-key, speakeasy vibe proved difficult for customers to locate, but also allowed Keung to carve out a fan base and freely explore with his boba concoctions.
“The same day [Boba 7] closed down, we decided to start a new Kickstarter campaign — and I could focus on re-launching the craft boba project I always wanted to do, but didn’t have the investment before,” Keung said. “I needed backers, so we could create a sense of urgency around this [project].”
The crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign proved a success, and Keung smartly provided perks such as recipe books, reverse stamp cards and creating/naming your own drink on the menu.
With Keung’s original goal at $50,000, the campaign and its loyal supporters surpassed that, raising nearly $60,000 in total funds. The campaign was fully funded in November 2016, on Black Friday.
“It was a glorious day,” Keung recalled.
In December 2016, Keung secured a new location for his craft boba project: a little store in Las Tunas Plaza in the heart of San Gabriel, minutes from where he grew up.
Although the name and location has changed, the new Boba 7 still serves the same craft boba quality and products.
The new name, Labobatory — trademarked by Keung back when Boba 7 first opened — also serves as an “experiment” for him to keep serving up new drink creations, and keep his business running. (A sign out front reads “beta,” in tiny letters under “Labobatory.”)
It also pays homage to the speakeasy that once was, with a hidden “Boba 7” reference in its logo.
Labobatory serves up a diverse menu, from its popular classics like Horchata Boba and Boba Fete (Irish cream, coffee, and black milk tea), to crowd-funded creations like the “Purple DREAm” (a taro drink with purple ice cream, a homage to Filipino ube culture) and the “ABG (Asian Boba Girl),” a mix of Vietnamese coffee with purple (ube) cream.
“Sure, its farther from downtown, which is still my favorite location, but there are still loyal customers coming here from all over, who are familiar with the boba drinks and excited for the new concept,” Keung said. “We made a name for ourselves.”
High Quality is a Priority
Before the day starts, Keung checks the tiny, honey-flavored tapioca cooking in the pot; testing its taste, thickness, chewiness, consistency and sweetness to his liking.
His ingredients are locally sourced; everything from the Vietnamese coffee and condensed milk, to the tiny tapioca balls. “To me, it’s not so much where you get everything from, but how you cook it,” he says.
Boba itself was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, although the exact origin of the chewy round tapioca bits — made with tapioca flour and sugar, and alternatively known as “bubbles” or “pearls” — is widely disputed throughout.
Keung, however, takes pride in the fact that he met and learned from one of boba milk tea’s early inventors in spring of 2012 when he visited Taiwan just a few months before opening his beloved Boba 7.
“My goal was to visit all the boba shops in the area and get to know the culture, talk to people, learn all the fundamentals of boba,” says Keung of the trip. “I met the creator of boba milk tea herself and shared with her my idea for alcoholic boba. She really encouraged me, and it was a cool moment.”
Last summer, Keung returned to Taiwan to hand-pick tea leaves in the high mountains and farms, learning the process of farming, packaging and brewing high quality tea from the “tea-masters” themselves.
Today, Keung sources his premium menu oolong and green tea products from local mountain farmers in Gukeng, Taiwan.
“It was a spiritual experience for me,” he shared. “It’s important to me to have the highest quality; that’s most authentic to what they serve [in Taiwan].”
Be an Innovator
Despite being located in what’s known as the “boba block” of San Gabriel Valley, Keung says Labobatory doesn’t face much competition. It’s more of a community of small-business shop owners, supporting one another (he named-dropped neighbors like Factory Tea Bar and Golden Deli Restaurant).
On the business side, Keung also runs the operation himself — taking care of marketing/branding, social media and self-promotion. He also occasionally performs magic tricks behind the counter, entertaining the long wait of customers.
“As a business owner, I’ve learned to take care of myself mentally and physically — and to have fun,” he shared. “As a foodie, it’s about knowing what’s trending in the food world, what people are into these days.”
He also says the store has its share of regular food bloggers, Instagram models and YouTubers.
“People want to see food look good, rather than appreciating its taste — to me, taste is more important, but I also try to make [my drinks] look as best I can,” he admitted. “Sometimes it’s a challenge, laying multi-colored drinks when you have 40+ customers waiting for their orders.”
Although Labobatory currently doesn’t serve alcohol at its San Gabriel flagship, Keung continues the alcohol boba mixology at bi-monthly pop-ups at Seven Bar Lounge in downtown L.A., across from Boba 7’s old location.
The events can be found at Labobatory’s Facebook page.
Keung’s long-term goal is to open up a full Labobatory bar downtown in the next two years, where he would continue to serve his popular alcoholic boba creations — and eventually, cultural snacks like Taiwanese sausages and fries with Asian dipping sauces (wasabi mayo, Sriracha ketchup).
“There’s a huge market out there for boba cocktails and craft drinks,” he says. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you always have to try to be one step ahead; be an innovator.”
Top image: Allyson Escobar
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