As the door swings open to a small bubble tea shop in the South Side of Bethlehem, a bell resting above the entrance chimes to greet a curious customer. Chaotic chattering echos. The blender engine roars. The drink orders are shouted to be heard. Part-time workers shuffle around each other in the tightly-spaced kitchen where a sign on the wall behind them displays:
“Hocaa Bubble Tea”
Caa means tea. Ho means peaceful. But the lively energy and boisterous noise suggests otherwise.
From before the opening hours until past closing, part time bobaristas — slang for boba shop baristas — untie their aprons and change shifts, but a single worker remains clocked-in.
Tony Cheng, the owner and manager of Hocaa Bubble Tea, opened his establishment in the middle of May. Despite the budding promises of springtime, the lingering pandemic brought on a drought for small business owners across the country. The numerous tasks to balance had Cheng working in the store daily from dawn to dusk.
“The hardest part of the job is, since we are new here and we are in a pandemic, we are still struggling with hiring more people,” Cheng said. “Right now, there’s not enough people to work here, so in addition to my managerial position, I also have to be a barista and cashier. It’s very busy for me.”
Before managing Hocaa, Cheng had 10 years of experience in the food service industry. He was good at it. He enjoyed it. He knew what had to be done. Yet nothing could have prepared Cheng for the unexpected climate of pandemic-driven work.
Each morning, hours before opening, Cheng is up and on his way to the grocery store. His daily dose of black tea rests in the cupholder beside his seat as he reads over his shopping list. He needs strawberries for the smoothies. More grapes for the toppings. Fresh green tea leaves.
Athens Cai, a part-time barista, is the only original employee still working at Hocaa since its opening. Many left once the fall semester began, but Cai has seen firsthand the time and effort Cheng put in from Day 1.
“He’s been there every single day,” Cai said. “Without him, Hocaa couldn’t open. He does everything behind the scenes. Sometimes he would close the store, go home to eat, then come back to work. I would drive past at like midnight, and see the lights still on.”
Cai describes Cheng as a perfectionist. Not even the smallest of details are overlooked. But the precision of the recipes and the authenticity of the teas are what Cheng is most passionate about. He ensures quality, and it can be seen in the satisfaction of customers.
It also shows in his hands. Literally.
The redness of his fingers and chapped skin from his elbows down didn’t go unnoticed by his employees.
Alice Chen, a former employee, said she was able to tell that some days were physically harder than others for Cheng.
“I would really emphasize that he’s hardworking,” Chen said. “He has to bring in his wife, and sometimes it would just be them two working if no one else can come in. When we first opened and needed to figure out more things, he would have to stay until 3 a.m. to prepare toppings and everything for the next day.”
Cheng never mentioned the toll, however. His exhaustion almost seemed forgotten since he was always the first to goof around in the back kitchen.
Katie Zettlemoyer, a Bethlehem resident, became a regular at Hocaa after her son had stumbled across the shop and consistently asked to go back.
“(Cheng’s) always here,” Zettlemoyer said. “He’s very dedicated and hardworking. Every time I come in, he’s always here and working.”
The fatigue from yesterday lingers today, but his mission and purpose surpass discomfort.
“Bubble tea is about tea culture,” Cheng said. “It’s a very traditional culture in Asian countries like China and Japan. They have a very old culture with history behind it, so I want to be able to share this with Americans.”
Jasmine. Biluochun. Roasted oolong. These are just a few of the types of tea leaves that decorate the left section of the store, precisely displayed to enlighten the wandering eye.
Cheng said that many customers had never heard of boba and bubble tea until trying their first sip at Hocaa and chewing on the sugary black pearls. They would ask about what it was and what it tasted like, and he was always happy to share. It’s why he had opened a bubble tea shop in the first place.
Though a franchise in China, Hocaa in Bethlehem was the first ever American location. Cheng said he chose it specifically because of how his wish correlated with the name.
He aimed to bring a sweet gift to the Bethlehem community — a reminder for more peace and love. It’s also evident in the heart motif decor in the store and on the cups.
But it has only been five months, and it’s hard to measure success as the next day presents itself with its own set of challenges. Yet in the ever-changing climate as a small business owner, two things remain constant: Cheng’s high goals and standards, and the community he’s found in Bethlehem that helps his establishment grow.