This blog was originally published to Yelp’s Data Science Medium blog, Locally Optimal. Follow Locally Optimal on Medium to stay up-to-date on similar content and data analysis from Yelp’s Data Science team.
Bubble tea is no mere fad. The Taiwan-born drink marrying chewy and sweet tapioca balls with creamy and sweet milk tea and ice has been in the U.S. for decades, yet its popularity keeps growing. Also known as boba for the Chinese slang-derived name of the tapioca balls commonly found at the bottom of the cup, bubble tea is gaining mouth share and review share as it keeps spreading throughout the U.S. and to new kinds of businesses.
By “mouth share,” boba is on a meteoric rise. “Mouth share” is a name we use for a metric that tracks the popularity on Yelp of a type of food or restaurant, while controlling for the overall rise in usage of Yelp. It’s the sum of pageviews for businesses in a given category, divided by all pageviews for food and restaurants — the category’s share of all hungry and thirsty mouths going to Yelp for their fill.
So far this year, page views for businesses categorized as “bubble tea” in the food and restaurant categories in the U.S. are up fivefold since 2012, putting the category just ahead of French restaurants and behind ramen. Keep in mind that the actual growth in traffic to these businesses on Yelp is even more dramatic, because overall Yelp usage has risen. Also, even keeping mouth share unchanged is a struggle, as new categories enter the fray all the time. And this analysis isn’t including the many businesses that sell boba but aren’t categorized as “bubble tea” because of all the other things they do.
Just as remarkably, more Yelpers than ever can’t wait to tell each other about the boba they just drank. The share of reviews in food or restaurant categories mentioning “boba” is roughly double the share eight years ago.
Boba has been popular for a long time, which makes its continued gains all the more impressive. The recent growth in boba’s popularity coincides with the opening or expanding of new boba chains such as Kung Fu Tea and Sharetea, among others.
Boba is a nationwide phenomenon: There’s a bubble-tea shop in every state. Some states’ residents have had a bubble-tea option for over a decade; about one-third have gotten their first business categorized as bubble tea more recently, including seven in the last six years.
While boba is everywhere, you have to go west to find the center of the movement. Among the nation’s biggest cities, San Jose and Houston have the highest boba mouth share, followed by San Francisco and Boston. Boba isn’t nearly as big in Miami, Washington, DC, and New Orleans.
Bubble tea isn’t just available in boba-focused shops. It’s often peddled alongside other drinks. More than one-third of bubble-tea shops are also categorized as coffee and tea in our database, and about as many are classified as juice bars. And nearly one-third are restaurants. Despite boba’s Taiwanese roots, Vietnamese is the most common cuisine to be offered by a business selling bubble tea, closely followed by Chinese, Asian Fusion, Taiwanese and Japanese.