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When Customers Balked at High Prices, This Bubble Tea Maker Educated Them About Quality Ingredients. Now His Flea Market Stand Has Turned Into 3 Permanent Locations. From day one, Mathew Wong's goal has been to share the authentic bubble tea experience with his community. By staying true to his vision and facing obstacles head-on, he's brought a taste of Asia to customers across three New York City neighborhoods with his company Tea and Milk.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Tell a compelling story to set you apart from competitors and turn your shop into a brand. Think about the unique values and attributes of your business, such as a focus on authentic products.
  • Responding to reviews makes customers feel valued. Make sure to thoughtfully craft replies and respond to critical feedback as well as praise.
  • Educate customers on your products and pricing to increase transparency. If you’re introducing them to a product they aren’t familiar with, they might need some time to adjust their expectations.
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Courtesy of Tea and Milk

Mathew Wong, owner of Tea and Milk, initially struggled to meet high costs and customer demand when building his New York City bubble tea business. But by educating his customers and providing quality products, he transformed a single shop into a well-known, values-based brand.

The shop's original 10-by-10-foot space at the Long Island Flea Market has given way to three permanent locations across New York City, including storefronts in Chelsea Market, Brooklyn, and Astoria. In the process, Mathew built out a centralized kitchen for sandwich making, an event catering service, and a huge community of boba lovers.

Related: The Counter Service at Yo' Mama's Is Just As Unique As Its Name. Here's Why People Come Back for the Experience as Much as the Food.

One of the biggest keys to success for Tea and Milk is their focus on integrity. Mathew and his business partners travel to Asia to source and learn more about their ingredients, visiting tea farms to learn about everything from the tea-making and manufacturing process to the ceremonies that celebrate the cultural role of the ancient drink. Mathew then uses his travel experiences to educate his customers about the products so they feel good about their purchases.

Even though Mathew and his team believe in the importance of well-sourced ingredients, the right tea leaves can be quite expensive, and they've had to learn to work around the rising cost of goods.

Mathew reads all of Tea and Milk's financial statements to keep up with margins. His background in accounting has taught him that even though it can be overwhelming to face discouraging numbers head-on, it's crucial to understand how your business is performing so you can make necessary adjustments.

"[If] you're reading a [profit and loss statement] and it's scaring you, it's very likely because you're not doing something that you need to do, such as marketing, educating the customers, training your staff," Mathew said. "You need to have standard operating procedures in order to push forward. There's no other way around it."

Related: The Little Coffee Shop That Asks Customers Not to Be Quiet

In terms of educating customers, one of Tea and Milk's biggest obstacles is that customers often aren't used to the taste of premium ingredients, so the more they know about the product, the more likely they'll be satisfied with their purchase. This goes hand in hand with getting to know customers' preferences as well.

"We want [customers] to trust the brand," Mathew said. "So [when you] order something that you didn't like, you get something else that you do like. Then you build trust with that person, and eventually, maybe [they'll] try it again."

Despite the challenges that using authentic ingredients has posed, Mathew sees his products as a worthwhile investment. He has situated his shops intentionally across the city to fill gaps in bubble tea offerings in several New York neighborhoods.

"We go into neighborhoods that we believe are starving for a certain type of brand. We saw Bay Ridge (Brooklyn), we saw what it was lacking, and we wanted to go in there to be the brand that can offer something different."

He encourages customers to support the local businesses in their neighborhood however they can. If you're not able to spend money at a local spot you enjoy, writing a review or telling your friends to visit can have a lasting impact.

"If you want the business to stay, you have to help support in a way," Mathew said.

Mathew is a big believer in the power of acknowledging and engaging with customer feedback. While critical reviews can sting, he makes sure to respond to as many as he can to show that he cares about his customers, commenting back in a timely manner while giving himself room to cool off if he needs it.

He also encourages business owners to lean on friends and partners for support. Having started Tea and Milk with two of his friends and now operating the business with a co-owner and general manager, Mathew finds it invaluable to have people to brainstorm with about new ideas and improvements. He has also built a network of other small business owners for conversations about business challenges and potential collaborations.

Related: How This California Hot Spot Grew From Delivery-Only to Pop-Up Shop to Storefront

"There's always going to be times where people don't agree. But at the end of the day, you have to be very open to these conversations," Mathew said. "The type of people who want to be in your ecosystem will always be there."

In addition to the importance of authentic ingredients and products, Tea and Milk believes in:

  • Staying on top of your schedule and finances. While it can be stressful, looking at the bigger picture and being proactive can help you navigate your business through unexpected challenges.
  • Leaning on fellow entrepreneurs for support. It's important to find and have the right people in your corner when thinking about how to expand and improve.
  • Keeping your eye on the prize. There will always be obstacles when launching a new initiative, so it's important to set clear goals and stay true to them.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Mathew, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and Soundcloud.

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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