Who Does Boba Guys ‘Bridge Cultures’ For?

Allegations of anti-Blackness, racism and harassment put the milk tea chain’s supposed progressive values under scrutiny.

A few shifts into his new job at Boba Guys, Theo Chatman noticed that co-founder Andrew Chau seemed a little too excited to have him there. 

Chatman, one of the few Black employees at the bubble tea chain, joined the San Carlos location while actor Will Smith was considering an investment in the company. According to Chatman, Chau would come into the store and show him “hidden emails and group chats” alluding to partnerships with Black influencers or celebrities like Smith.

“He was basically really emphasizing the fact that like, ‘Wow, look at Boba Guys. We’re starting to get Black people to basically like our shit too,’” Chatman says, noting that Chau’s motivations felt disingenuous. “‘Oh wow, we got a Black dude working at our store now. We must be doing something right.’”

In reality, Black employees were allegedly mistreated by customers, belittled by management, and tokenized when it served the company.

When Boba Guys opened up its first shop in the Mission District in 2013, the company had a lofty vision. Ostensibly influenced by the high-minded founding statements typical of so many San Francisco tech startups, the guys from Boba Guys set out to usher in a revolution in “artisan” milk tea — “bridging cultures” across the Asian diaspora, one sweet, caffeinated cup at a time.

Under Chau’s and his co-founder, Bin Chen’s, direction, boba got a new look: You knew who was making your drink, as opposed to the faceless corporations of other milk tea chains. Boba Guys was easy to connect with — they made a point of being open on social media, and their Instagram is dotted with smiling company faces alongside glossy pictures of their iconic strawberry matcha lattes. Passion, quality and transparency are listed as the company’s core values in their online mission statement.

Unfortunately, according to accounts from 10 former employees, these values only applied to the drinks they were serving. As brands across the country posted black squares and company statements in questionable solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Chau himself posted two 14-minute-long videos to the Boba Guys Instagram. The first talked about systemic racism; the second alluded to a “2018 incident” in which a manager was not held accountable for making racist remarks. 

After Chau posted the second video, confessions from former employees surfaced in the comments section, alleging anti-Blackness and general toxicity in the company. Boba Guys removed the second video — along with the accusations.

“The longer we left the post up, the more it devolved into personal attacks, threats of violence, and revealing the personal information of several team members,” read a statement the next day. “We believe in radical transparency and dialogue, but for our team members’ safety, we decided to remove the post.”

Bridging Cultures

In their recently-released boba recipe book — which claims to be the first of its kind helmed by a Western publisher — Chau and Chen write about the process of making The Boba Book

“When we were looking for a writer, we searched far and wide for the white right voice to pair with our Asian-ness. This is a book about drinks, but really it’s a book about bridging cultures.” 

Chau and Chen later talk about how they found Richard Parks III to co-write the book. Parks was a white “self-proclaimed xiao long bao snob” who Boba Guys took to Asia for a “crash course in everything Asian.”

“We wanted someone who could help us broaden our perspective,” the founders write. “And if we picked another Asian writer, well, you’d probably assume this was FABA: For Asians, By Asians.”

It feels contradictory to their history — Boba Guys has always been proud to be an Asian American company that “bridges cultures.” It’s in their mission statement: “To bridge cultures, and change the way people think about boba and tea.” 

But that motto didn’t translate well. According to former marketing coordinator Adriana Angelini, Chau’s goal was to make boba palatable for white patrons, something she saw while planning for the Revolve Festival, a glitzy, invite-only party held within Coachella. Revolve is typically populated with influencers, celebrities and models — it’s so exclusive that you can’t even buy your way in.

Boba Guys was serving complimentary drinks at Revolve, so Angelini and the Boba Guys catering manager made a list based on peoples’ work performances.

But Chau vetoed almost everyone they suggested. Under his direction, they had to cherry-pick a certain “type” — the “pretty white American,” says Angelini. It was an attempt to make boba more accessible to non-Asian communities — mainly to white people.

“There was an ex-employee who was [a] super cute, all-American girl,” Angelini says. “No matter how many good employees we had in the company, we were told to reach out to her and have her come in for this one-time event — just so she could represent the Boba Guys brand.”

Meanwhile, the employees working in the back were selected for performance, and were Asian or Latinx. The situation did not sit well with Angelini, who joined Boba Guys for their professed values. She left the company just a few months later. 

‘I Was Next’

While Chau was working to get the Boba Guys brand to appeal to white customers, he was also working on “bridging cultures” with his Black and Latinx employees.

Tamia Proctor, a former Black employee who was then working at Boba Guys’ Union Square location, noticed how keen Chau was to speak with her about random Black figures or cultural icons.

“He would start talking to me for hours. He would always try to make a point of talking about stuff he thought I would relate to, which could be really insensitive,” Proctor says. “It was always like, ‘Oh, let’s talk about Black Panther. Let’s talk about Martin Luther King.’”

These conversations made Proctor feel used — as if she was just there to absolve Boba Guys of its racism while experiencing it firsthand. And they were only one of the several aggravating incidents Proctor had to deal with in her time at Boba Guys. She remembers how a white customer cursed her out while she was working, and how older Asian customers threw cash or credit cards at her. Some even refused to speak with her at the register.

People walk by Boba Guys Hayes Valley at Octavia and Haight streets on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly)

Proctor felt that this was happening to her specifically, and not her white or Asian coworkers. She raised her concerns to them, but instead of responding supportively, Asian employees excused the behavior of Asian patrons, saying that “rudeness is cultural,” even as Proctor insisted that she was being selectively targeted because of her race. 

What’s more, Proctor felt like her concerns put a target on her back, especially after a Black colleague was fired for alleged customer service issues.

“I was told that I was being watched. I was next, and that she was an example,” Proctor says. “When she left, I watched so many other Asian and white employees get away with so much worse.” She recalls Asian and white coworkers being rude to customers and serving them the wrong drinks on purpose. They were always allowed to have “bad days,” but Proctor wasn’t.

Eventually, it was hard to get through a single shift without feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

“It sucks because although the Black employees and Hispanic employees were treated differently, we all liked our jobs. We had a really good team,” Proctor says. “The company had good values even though they’re hypocrites. They don’t operate on their own values.”

Proctor endured a year and a half of microaggressions and dismissiveness before finally quitting. She says her schedule availability was rarely respected — especially in comparison to the schedules of white and Asian employees — and she often ended up working six days a week with no recognition. 

“[Black employees] were expected to pick up the slack of someone else’s work,” Proctor says. “We were constantly being cited for attitude issues despite our constant, constant complaints that many of the customers were racist and would really mistreat us.”

Proctor felt both vilified and used, a sentiment Chatman echoes.

“They really had a degrading type of vibe to them,” Chatman says of the employees in upper management. “‘Don’t mess up. Make us look good.’”

Kira Roman, a former Latina employee who worked at the San Carlos branch, experienced a double standard similar to Proctor, watching her white coworkers being praised for “mediocrity” while she was labeled as a “problem” after speaking out against racism. This was the “2018 incident” Chau vaguely described in the now-deleted Instagram video.

A manager had allegedly said that he wouldn’t take a drink made by a Black person, citing stereotypes of laziness.

In the video, Chau said that the manager was later demoted, though several former employees say this isn’t true — that the manager was still able to retain his title. Chau told Eater SF that he didn’t investigate the incident until months after it happened. Even then, the conclusion Chau came to wasn’t definitive.

“Was it racist or is it, ‘this person doesn’t really hear how he talks?’” Chau said in the video. 

That manager was ultimately fired in the wake of the backlash to Chau’s Instagram videos, two years after the “2018 incident.” That experience wasn’t singular. Wen Neale, a former shift lead at Boba Guys’ flagship location in the Mission, remembers how Chau would call a group of Latinx employees the “horchata gang,” and how another co-worker would constantly call Latinx employees “aggressive” and Black employees “lazy.”

“Oftentimes, Black and brown women are labeled as aggressive or sassy, or just loud, or whatever it may be,” Roman says. “That’s just one of the microaggressions we have to deal with in a work setting.”

Playing Favorites

These microaggressions ended up manifesting into a barred promotion for Proctor. After months of working at Boba Guys, Proctor was ready to go from “bobarista” to shift lead, which would give her a two dollar per hour wage increase. But to get the title and pay change, Proctor would have to go through a training class and test at Boba Guys HQ, located in Brisbane — a far trek for Proctor, who lived in Oakland.

Passing the exam, according to Griffin Moskowitz, a former assistant store manager at Boba Guys’ Union Square location, was unnecessarily difficult for multiple reasons: One, you weren’t compensated for travel time or expenses, which deterred qualified employees from taking the class in the first place; Two, to pass the exam, you’d have to beat the class average.

“It was possible for everyone in the class to pass, but you would have to have 100 percent across the board,” Moskowitz says. “Otherwise, it ended up being maybe like two or three people would pass, and everyone else would fail.”

When Proctor took the exam the first time, she got 91 points out of 100. She needed 92 points to pass. According to Proctor, the exam administrator docked points for “not smiling enough.”

“Because I wasn’t cheesing at her, I guess I came across as unapproachable,” Proctor says. “And that’s the thing about being a Black employee in these kinds of industries. We’re expected to be these happy-go-lucky persons, and if you’re not that person, you’re intimidating, you’re scary, and you’re rude — even when you’re totally not.”

After failing the exam, Proctor says she worked three months of shift lead duties without shift lead pay before finally passing the test on her second try. 

Signs for social distancing and online ordering sit in the window at Boba Guys Hayes Valley at Octavia and Haight streets on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Weekly)

Kendall Tice, a white store lead, remembers how one Latina shift lead was passed over for an assistant store manager role she clearly deserved. This shift lead had been with the company for a year, and her coworkers thought that she was shoo-in for the role.

“She did everything correctly,” Tice says. “She was more than happy to take on the position.” 

But when it came down to it, Chau had multiple qualms against her, citing attitude issues.

“I talked to Andrew so many times about it,” Tice says. “He fought so hard because he had a perception of her that she was too soft, she was too ‘mama bear.’”

It was perplexing where these assumptions were coming from, given the shift lead’s strong performance and long history with the company. “In reality, Andrew had probably spent a total of 15 minutes interacting with her,” Tice says.

You’re Either With Us… 

In Matilda — the 1996 big screen adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book of the same name — there’s a moment when Matilda’s egomaniac father turns to his supernaturally intelligent daughter and goes, “I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” all the while jabbing his finger in the air as Matilda, with boundless patience, holds her tongue.

It is this scene that Angelini thinks of when trying to describe Boba Guys’ work culture. 

“It’s almost like when you’re working at Boba Guys, you’re silent, and it’s almost like you think it’s only happening to you,” Angelini says. “You don’t raise your voice, because you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m being sensitive. Or I’m being entitled.’ That’s the thing about working at Boba Guys. It’s incredibly manipulative.”

Part of the toxic work culture boiled down to a Boba Guys leader: Chau. Angelini remembers Chau constantly saying at meetings that Boba Guys employees didn’t know what it was like to work in “the real world.” It felt like employees weren’t entitled to have valid opinions, or feedback.

“It just felt that way, like — ‘Oh, I know better than you guys, so you shouldn’t be complaining about this or that, or you shouldn’t have an opinion about this or that, because my way is correct because I’m older, or I’m smarter, or I’m more well-educated,’” Christine Harsono, a former employee at Boba Guys’ Fillmore location, says. 

When employees did speak up, it was met with resistance, creating an atmosphere of fear. Proctor remembers how she initially wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the company. But speaking out about unfair scheduling, she found herself at the center of scrutiny.

“I was told three or four times that I was being watched, that I needed to be careful, that I needed to have one foot out of the door, just for speaking up about the schedule,” Proctor says.

Back when Roman first raised the issue of the “2018 incident” with both Chau and the manager responsible for the racist comments, she was ignored and allegedly “blacklisted” within the company. 

“They preach this motto of having open dialogue and transparency, but it’s almost as if you give them negative feedback, you’re against them,” Roman says. “So you’re either with them, or you’re against them.”

What happened at Boba Guys isn’t unique. Recently, a report by Mission Local revealed allegations of an anti-Black culture at Dandelion Chocolate. Food media has been undergoing its own reckoning with systemic racism

“I’m really not exaggerating when I say I feel like I was part of a cult,” Moskowitz says.

Many former employees felt that they were alone in their struggles. That is, until Chau started posting about Black Lives Matter on Instagram. That’s when the comments section was populated with allegations of racism and harassment. It was like a floodgate had opened.

“I was made to feel like that was such an individual experience,” Neale says. “We didn’t realize until we all came together and talked about it, that there were so many problems going on. I thought I was the only one experiencing it. I thought everyone else was doing fine.”

Neale shared his own story about experiencing harassment from a co-worker. According to Neale, Boba Guys management did nothing about the situation. Eventually, the co-worker left by her own will to another location.

“I heard from one of the co-founder’s sister — she told me that Andrew said that ‘she can grow, she can change,’” in reference to the co-worker, Neale says.

There was no formal HR department, though the company — after recent backlash — has made promises to hire an HR generalist. That was one of the issues that several former employees cited. It felt like any complaints would have to go through Chau, who was actually the subject of many of them. The next year after the “2018 incident,” Chau finally implemented a “feedback loop.” What was supposed to be an anonymous space for sharing concerns ended up being a Google form that recorded email addresses. As the owner of the form, Chau could see who wrote what.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you say,” Harsono says. “If Andrew likes you, then you’re good. And if Andrew doesn’t like you, then tough luck.”

Boba Guys did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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