From Wall Street to Bubbleology
Started in London, Bubbleology is now making moves in the United States, backed by a former investment banker who wants to make bubble tea the drink of the masses.
Assad Khan vividly remembers his first taste of bubble tea while strolling through New York City’s Chinatown district back in 2009. He should remember, because that day—and his instant love for the Taiwanese tea drink—changed his life.
Working as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase at the time, Khan quit his job the next year, moved to London and quickly set himself on a course to bring bubble tea to the masses and, in his words, build the Starbucks of bubble tea.
“I had a pretty decent career, but for me it was more exciting to launch what I deemed to be the first premium Western-branded bubble tea brand whose aim was to expand across Europe and then into North America,” Khan said of his dramatic change of plans. “I went back to London and started working on the business plan in 2011 … and today we are operating in nine countries.”
Nearly six years in, Bubbleology is the category leader in the United Kingdom and European markets with approximately 70 units up and running. Now as they prepare to roll out a franchise- and company-owned store strategy in the U.S., the company is shooting for the moon by modeling its growth in the mold of Starbucks.
Leaving investment banking is “a decision I’ve never looked back on,” said founder Khan. “It was time to leave the nest and create something of my own.”
As Bubbleology scales up and begins entering the United States, Khan and the brand’s institutional investors are focused on reinvesting back into the business. The company has inked partnerships with big consumer names including Bloomingdale’s and Topshop to boost the brand’s visibility—as well as a partnership with Pernod Ricard, the French distillery, to create Absolut- and Malibu-infused mixes in London.
For the uninitiated, bubble tea is a unique experience. Depending on what you order, it’s either a fruity or milky tea-based concoction with fruit jelly or chewy tapioca balls added to give it a texture that’s a hybrid between a solid and a liquid.
Originally invented in the 1980s, bubble tea is now found in a very wide range of flavors, and can even be turned into an alcoholic beverage. Bubbleology’s menu includes milky, fruity and coffee-based permutations, with flavors including almond, jasmine, cocoa, honeydew and coconut, to name a few. They can be prepared hot or taken cold, like an iced coffee laced with gummy bears.
Asked what he likes about the polarizing drink, Khan pointed to its flexibility—cold or hot, fruity or milky—as well as the ability to customize how many sugar and calories are included in the mix. He added its alcoholic bubble teas have been particularly popular at its location in London’s Soho district, accounting for nearly 20 percent of that location’s sales.
“It’s tea’s answer to the coffee-based Frappuccino,” he said. “For me, it’s a great beverage to have on any occasion and fits perfectly within the impulse purchase category in the same way that pretzels or ice cream do.”
Bubbleology has prototypes ranging from mall kiosks up to more traditional storefront locations, but the brand has expanded to include a range of nontraditional locations that include college campuses, theaters, theme parks and in-store locations from some of its retail partners.
Khan estimates the cost to get in ranges from $172,000 for average-sized locations up to $293,000 for a flagship-style unit.
With four locations in the U.S. so far, Khan sees consumers between 14 and 30 years old as target in America, which is slightly older than its European customer base, with a slight female bias.
He said bubble tea is following the well-worn path blazed by sushi, or even Mexican food, that were both niche products at one time. The key, he said, is taking bubble tea up a notch and becoming the category’s leading brand.
He thinks Bubbleology can be big, “the way Auntie Anne’s is synonymous with pretzels … or Krispy Kreme is with donuts. That is exactly what Bubbleology is going to be, and we’re incredibly excited starting on this journey.”