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Outside a bubble-tea shop in Collingwood, overlooking the intersection by Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station.

How one East Vancouver neighbourhood has become a major hub for bubble tea

Understanding how the right combination of location, demographics, and culture contribute to a thriving bubble-tea community.

By Kaitlyn Fung , in City Culture Food , on November 30, 2020 Tags: , , , , , ,

Bubble-tea shops are all over the place in Vancouver, but there’s one place that could arguably be called the bubble-tea street of the city.

Kingsway, the busiest commercial street in the Collingwood neighbourhood, has a dozen bubble-tea shops all within 1.5 kilometres of each other.

“They are scattered all throughout, like from one end to the other,” said Angela Evans, executive director of the Collingwood Business Improvement Association. Her association has previously organized several bubble-tea themed events in the neighbourhood.

According to Evans, there are currently 14 bubble-tea shops in Collingwood, more than most of the other 22 districts managed by business improvement associations in Vancouver.

Bubble-tea drinkers included, the Collingwood district generally serves a distinct variety of people.

Located near the border of Vancouver and Burnaby, Collingwood is home to a higher percentage of families than the rest of the city. Census data from 2016 also shows that less than half of its residents speak English, and most people are below age 35.

But does this explain the neighbourhood’s bustling bubble-tea scene?

Front exterior view of three different bubble-tea shops housed next to each other in the same building, with two people walking past on the sidewalk in front.
Three different, neighbouring bubble-tea shops located on Kingsway share the same building.

“I think what works here, too, in Collingwood is that we are still in Vancouver, but this part of Vancouver probably has lower rental rates than other parts,” said Evans. She highlighted this and convenient transportation, especially major bus routes and SkyTrain stations nearby, as factors.

Others pointed out the role of the people living in the community, and how their tastes influence the neighbourhood.

“I feel like it might be because of the demographic,” said Sarah Cheng, a local Grade 12 student at Windermere Secondary School. Bubble tea is popular in Asian immigrant communities, she said, many of which have large populations near Collingwood.

“I think it’s mostly second generation, like Chinese, or Vietnamese, those people,” she added. “So we were born here, but we really like bubble tea.”

Young people like Cheng are also some of the most frequent bubble-tea patrons, said Steve Zhao, owner of Milk & Sugar Café.

Interior view of Milk & Sugar Café, including a view of the ordering counter, tables, and a customer, with the kitchen visible in the background.
Milk & Sugar Café, one of the early bubble-tea shops on Kingsway in Collingwood.

When he first opened on Kingsway in 2013, there was only one other shop nearby. Now the numbers have grown significantly, where a mix of independent and internationally franchised bubble-tea shops share the same street. Zhao believes this helps the neighbourhood.

“The more they have, the more people will come to this area for bubble tea,” he said. “They won’t try one place for the whole time, but they might want to try one of each.”

“The bubble-tea capital of Canada”
A large group of people pose together for a photo in an outdoor plaza, following their participation in the Collingwood bubble-tea crawl event.
A group photo after the Collingwood bubble-tea crawl in September 2019, a collaboration between I Heart BBT and the Collingwood Business Improvement Association. Photo: Collingwood Business Improvement Association.

That same idea led Collingwood to host the first ever “bubble-tea crawl” in Vancouver, in September 2019. The social group I Heart Bubble Tea, with over 5,000 members on Meetup.com, partnered with the Collingwood Business Improvement Association to promote visiting every shop.

Humphrey Ng, a co-founder of I Heart Bubble Tea, started the group in October 2010 with the intention of gathering people to check out bubble tea around Vancouver.

“I often joke with Angela [Evans] that this stretch of Kingsway is probably the bubble-tea capital of Canada, simply by how concentrated all the different shops are,” said Ng, when asked about the decision to host the bubble-tea crawl in Collingwood.

Will this high concentration of bubble tea in Collingwood eventually pop its bubble of demand?

“I actually thought we reached peak bubble tea about a year or two ago,” said Evans, though she also thinks there’s still room to grow. “I think each new bubble-tea place is doing a different spin.”

View of a sandwich board on a sidewalk with colourful chalk writing on it, advertising weekly specials for bubble-tea flavours.
Every bubble-tea shop in Collingwood offers something different. Some shops may specialize in fresh fruit ingredients, traditional tea flavours, or creative dessert toppings.

Cheng agreed, noting that every shop in Collingwood is unique, even if it’s all still bubble tea.

“There’s just something about it that I’ll never get bored of. It’s like I tried it for the first time, every time I have it.”