Pop Bubble Tea, launched in 2022, is a collaboration between long-time friends and coworkers Ashley Garrison (partner in The Hop) and Eva Peterson. They were kind enough to share their story with us this month.
A Sweet Idea at a Tough Time
Like many – if not most – businesses, The Hop faced challenges during the early months of the pandemic. Ashley, who owns The Hop with her husband and business partner Greg, shared that the Merrimon location was a bit of a question mark even before 2020. “It’s a really big space, and we had tried to do events and birthday parties to utilize that whole space, but it was a lot of effort for not a whole lot of return on investment,” she said. “When COVID hit, we were actually looking at closing down that location, but we were locked into a lease.” They thought about partnering with another local food business to bring something new to the space, but it was a hard balance to find, as even a large area can feel small if it isn’t shared with the right person or business. “We’d have to have a really good relationship for that all to work out, and nothing was really feeling right for that space,” said Ashley.
It was when Ashley enjoyed bubble tea in another town that the beginning of an idea formed. “I was like, ‘There are no bubble tea stores in Asheville.’” The thought eventually led to a conversation with longtime friend Eva Peterson.
Eva remembers the beginning well, saying, “It was the pandemic, we were stuck in the house, and we had a tiny baby at that moment.” While the timing may not have been ideal, as few things were in the beginning of COVID, Eva was intrigued. “I cannot tell you how many bubble teas I’ve tried all over Asia. It was part of my social life in Hong Kong as well as something I enjoyed in all of my travels…but I had never made bubble tea professionally. My career path was as a social worker!” She continued, “But when we talked more, I thought, ‘There’s a good idea.”
As the brainstorm started, they knew they would need help – including learning how to make authentic bubble tea right. Eva shared, “Ashley and I and Greg and my husband have the same mission or passion – if we need to do something, sell the drinks, sell the ice cream – we are not just doing it for business. We want to make it good. And that meant studying with a bubble tea master from Taiwan as part of our research.”
Blending Cultures Locally
While sharing quality products is a key component of Pop’s business ethos, equally important is honoring Asian culture. Eva and Ashley wanted to learn about bubble tea from its place of origin: Taiwan. And while the pandemic hurt business in many ways, in this way it made knowledge more accessible.
Ashley talked about the professional bubble tea training course, saying, “It used to be an only in person, only in Taiwan course. You had to go to their training facility. But when the pandemic hit, they found a way to make it virtual…I feel like it was really valuable in creating our business plan and understanding that there’s a lot of thought that can be put into these drinks, and the products you use – the ingredients and the combinations.”
While the virtual class was more accessible, it still took dedication. Eva added, “So, the time is totally different between Asheville and Taiwan. The two of us started at 8 p.m. and left the The Hop creamery at 1, sometimes 2 a.m. in the winter! But we wanted to do it right.”
The course was only the beginning for the friends and business partners, however. They spent a year traveling to different cities to try more than 50 bubble tea menus, including a trip to D.C., where they tried a dozen different bubble tea spots for research. That research then led to months of taste testing and recipe development to get to a menu they’re proud to serve.
Building that menu took time, including sourcing the highest quality ingredients – many directly from Taiwan – and earning the trust of sources along the way. Eva shared, “Our store – one of the great things about it – is we tried really hard to find different Taiwanese toppings. Some of them are really hard to find in the US. Aiyu jelly, grass jelly, red bean – they’re not common, you know. I always tell customers, ‘if you want to know the bubble tea store is traditional or not – look at the menu.’”
The end result is a true blend: understanding how to make bubble tea traditionally and bringing in local flavor as well. And Ashley’s years of working in the Asheville food community have yielded connections with farmers, restaurants, and suppliers that tie Pop into the local scene are also valuable to the end product. “It’s been fun to slowly filter [those relationships] into the bubble tea,” she said. Wherever their ingredients are sourced – local or Taiwanese providers – the relationships and quality are at the forefront.
Branding as Glue
If you’ve visited Pop, you’ve likely encountered Poppy the Otter mascot and seen the kawaii-style branding on display. It’s another nod to the blending of cultures: the name came about because Pop rhymes with The Hop (and bubbles pop!). Plus, the otter mascot blends the cute, fun branding of some Asian products with river otters that also live in WNC.
“The whole idea of bubble tea – from what we learned through our travels and research – is that it’s really fun, it’s very visual, and it’s more than just getting a coffee. It’s not just something you’re drinking just because it tastes good. It’s a full experience. Because it’s drinking, it’s chewing, and all of the drinks look really pretty as well, shared Ashley. “And through The Hop we were already working with Snow in July Designs – Leigh Ann. She’s amazing.”
Eva continued, saying, “Pop has a Chinese name, ‘博’, too, and part of the Chinese meaning is ‘Universal Love.’ That’s why one of our drinks is called Universal Love. We created it, and we wanted to include Poppy in this store to spread the love in the community.” Even their opening date – May 20 – means “I love you” in Chinese culture.
Never Stop Learning
When asked about what advice they’d share with other small business owners, Eva said, “It’s still a learning process for me.” Ashley agreed: “I think that’s a great thing to say. Always be curious and never stop learning. I’ve been with The Hop since I was 20, so almost 20 years now I’ve been in the same industry. You’d think I know everything about it, and I don’t. I still approach every situation with curiosity and what can I learn from this.”
“Ten years ago,” Eva shared, “if someone had said to me, ‘You’ll do no more social work and open up a bubble tea shop,’ I would say, “No way. Are you kidding me? My whole life is just social work!” She said that not only is it a new business, but she moved from Hong Kong to the US in 2016, has used a new language, and immersed herself in a new culture. And now it’s a new career, too. “When you have a dream – something you need to do – just try your best,” she said. “Learn from experience and let it give you more energy and confidence. Even in challenges, try again! Don’t forget the mission and passion.”
It’s also important to have a plan in place. As is evidenced in their extensive pre-opening research, recipe-testing, and ingredient sourcing, Ashley and Eva worked hard to know their product. They didn’t want to just make bubble tea, but make bubble tea well and authentically for the WNC community. Ashley advised, “Before you open your front doors, make sure you have a really good understanding of your product and your community and what it takes to get those doors open and keep them open. Launching a business is one animal, and sustaining that business is a different animal.”
“We really appreciate how Mountain BizWorks has been so open to lending, too,” Ashley continued. “And then additionally, the business coaching we’ve gotten through Mountain BizWorks has been absolutely critical in our decision-making and our forward planning and figuring out the structure for Pop…I just feel like Pop is so much more organized right off the bat. We’re not even 12 months in, and we have better organization and structure than we’ve ever had at The Hop.”
She credits Eva too, saying, “A lot of that is bringing Eva in as well – she has a really strong business background in social work and people management. Her husband does IT work, so he’s been really helping on the computer side of things as well. With our powers combined and Mountain BizWorks there as the supporting entity for us – it’s definitely helped Pop to be a success from day one.”
“We trust each other a lot,” Eva said. “We’re a family business, but it works really well because we respect each other and we know we want to do it well and we try really hard to do it well. It’s a good team.“
A Welcoming, Flavorful Environment
As their business becomes more known locally, they’re sticking to the roots of their ideas for the business: quality product and cultural awareness. Eva said, “We haven’t had time to think about long dreams yet! But we want more people to know about bubble tea. It’s an Asian culture promotion! We’ve definitely taught a lot of people how to order and what is bubble tea. So, it’s a really exciting moment for me and for us.” She also mentions the terrible rise in anti-Asian attacks in the past three years, saying, “We just want people to learn about and respect our culture.”
Ashley echoed her sentiments and praised her business partner, saying “Eva does an amazing job of bringing people in and making them feel welcome. And creating a really great space and making a safe space for all cultures and races…Bubble tea is a very social event, just like ice cream. You can get ice cream by yourself, but sometimes it’s more fun to bring a friend. Bubble tea is the same way. If we keep doing what we’re doing, I see this developing into another staple in the community for folks.”
You may be curious what to order when you visit, and anyone at the Pop counter would be happy to help! But if you want to know Eva and Ashley’s current favorites, Ashley says hers is Jasmine green tea, “a green milk tea with grass jelly and sometimes tapioca, make with oat milk. That’s my favorite right now.”
Eva couldn’t decide, but offered some great selections to add to your list. “For me it’s really hard to tell you! Too many options. I definitely like the classic black milk tea with tapioca. I really like fruit tea, too – the lychee black tea with lychee star jelly. I also really like Tiger Stripe – with coffee jelly.”
When asked for final thoughts, Eva said it best: “Come enjoy some authentic bubble tea!”
You can visit Pop Bubble Tea Wednesday – Monday from 12 – 8 p.m. inside The Hop Ice Cream at 640 Merrimon Avenue, Asheville. For more information, visit PopBubbleTeaNC.com.
Photos captured by Oscar Molina of Molina Vision Media.