When I first walked into Bobae Coffee & Tea in Woodinville, I immediately noticed a difference. Instead of the usual espresso choices listed on the wall, I found options like Nitro Jasmine Silver Tip Milk Tea, White Chocolate Lavender Milk Tea, and Japanese Ceremonial Matcha Lemonade. Before I could even feel overwhelmed, I was greeted by Erica, who was ready and willing to answer any questions I might have. I went with a Caramel Nitro Cold Brew and was encouraged to try it with a topping called coffee jelly. Why not?
Located in a former Starbucks store, Bobae serves drinks made with high quality ingredients, and all of their syrups are made in-house with real cane sugar, organic agave nectar or, in the case of their range of keto, monk fruit. No chemicals are allowed. They serve fair trade coffee roasted by nearby coffee partners. They offer lactose free milk as well as milk substitutes like oat and almond milk. Even so, Bobae is a bit hard to describe.
âWe’re a bit of a clumsy turtle between a cafe and a boba store because we do both,â says owner Karma Lee. “We are more of a creative cafe because I change the menu every month which allows people to be adventurous.”
Karma, a first-generation immigrant from Macau, China, opened Bobae with her husband Joey in October 2019, just nine months after their marriage. He considers Bobae more like an experienced cafÃ©.
âWe really like getting to know everyone by name,â Joey said. âWe get to know you as a person, and then usually the second or third time around, we get to know your palate and we know what is best for you. ”
If you ask him what the best drink in the store is, he’ll answer you with a bunch of questions.
“Do you like sweet? Floral? Fruity? We dive deep into your palate and from there we make a couple of recommendations and I think that’s why we have such a high success rate in finding the right drink for you because we care about you.
The couple agree that no question is stupid and they understand that ordering from Bobae can be intimidating for some at first.
âJust be open-minded and allow yourself to be a little uncomfortable,â Karma says. âJust ask your questions, we’re here to answer them. The questions are okay. “
The Lees bring a delicious energy to this already clear, luminous and resolutely pink place. On one wall there is a letter written to themselves which begins with: âWe have made a journey on this frail and unused path, and here we are in Bobae. Remember how we got here and the people who helped us learn more about ourselves. We are more than just coffee, we are a living memory of our past, present and future, handcrafted in every drink.
If you look at the top you will see three small figurines called wise men. One is the symbol of good karma, the other is for wealth and the other is a student. They are put there to remind the Lees to build good karma by always taking care of others. Just below is a small Christmas tree, a remnant of Christmas. Since all the other employees there love the holidays and it’s rosy, it stays. On the back wall hangs an illuminated neon pig logo designed by Karma herself.
âTo me, we are the pigs who bring treasure, luck and cultural richness to our community,â says Karma. “The name Bobae means treasure or precious in both Cantonese and Mandarin. In the Korean bible, it can also mean faith.”
This is normal since the opening of the cafÃ© was an act of faith for the couple.
At that time, my order arrives.
âHere is your Caramel Nitro Cold Brew with our homemade cold brew,â says a Bobae employee with my drink. She keeps. âHe’s infused for 24 hours, so he’s really infused in there. Along with the nitro it makes it really smooth and creamy. We added a little half and half and some coffee jelly. You’ll want to give it a good stir to make sure it mixes.
This is delicious.
âWhat you just experienced, we do with every customer, whether they’re six or 70,â says Joey, who believes it’s important to present each drink with a short speech. “I think just telling you this story and this learning lesson brings some value to wanting you to be about to drink.”
When the store first opened, some customers were baffled and surprised that the place was no longer a Starbucks. There were also more dangerous issues.
“We had incidents where I was making latte for someone and they wouldn’t take it from my hand, but if I had my employee, who looks different from me, handed them their drink, they would just take it, âJoey said. âThey were presented with something that they weren’t used to and some of these people weren’t very receptive to it. But we fought that by killing them with kindness and exceptional customer service. “
Bobae was only opened a few months before COVID-19 hit and like so many other businesses, they were hit hard. Sales were down about 90% and they felt a great responsibility to take care of their employees. So they made a commitment to each other.
âIt was one of those late nights when Karma and I looked at the finances and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Joey recalls. âIt was awful. So we took the risk of investing in our people and figured out that no matter what, we’re not going to let finances be the reason we have to let who go. whether it be.
The Lees knew that some of their employees had relatives who had been put on leave.
“For us, it didn’t look good to us [us to let go of] the only person to bring home money because we were in trouble.
It is very important to these two that every drink they serve also contains a small piece of it. It’s kind of a way of letting others experience the stories in Lee’s life. For example, their Mango Sticky Rice drink was inspired by one of Joey’s favorite desserts growing up. He also likes to get a little crazy from time to time.
âWe had a drink a while ago where we had a flaming marshmallow and then we dipped it in the drink and some customers were recording it and posting the video on social media. Others would see it and say “I want it too!”
Karma can also get a little crazy. His latest effort is to try and come up with a sriracha-flavored drink, but so far that hasn’t worked.
âI think it’s garlic in it,â she said. âI like to invent things that make people say, ‘How the hell did she imagine that? But when it comes to business, she says human connection is the most important. “Joey and I are suckers for the relationship part.”
Les Lees tell me that some kids want to celebrate their birthdays here and they have an older wife who comes and orders something different every day.
âSomeone left a review recently that said, ‘I come here all the time and every time I do it feels like I see an old friend again and haven’t seen him for a while’ , said Joey.
âWe had a client who said, ‘I’ve been through the deepest and darkest times lately – they lost their parents and grandparents in the span of a year – and I didn’t. can’t believe i found a place like this that just made me feel good, âadds Karma.
This is what they live for. Build human bonds.
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