Charn Bak has spent over a decade building various food and beverage retail concepts since he graduated from Cornell University. But when food service was hit hard by the pandemic, especially those run by Asian entrepreneurs due to mounting racially motivated hate crimes, Bak had to pivot to a more innovative business idea — weaving together his Asian heritage and the ubiquitous, beloved ice cream seemed to be a no-brainer.
“I felt food, music, and culture were more connected and shared today,” Bak said recently, “and Boba x Ice cream was built with the intention to promote and support Asian-American culture with foods I grew up accustomed to enjoying.”
Boba, also known as tapioca pearls, is made from cassava starch. They’re typically added in bubble tea, a milk tea beverage originated in Taiwan in the ’80s, and has become widely consumed globally.
The validation for Boba x Ice cream came when Trader Joe’s released a black tea and boba coconut-based frozen dessert last summer, and it immediately got sold out, Bak recalled. “We learned consumers would welcome this new offering in ice cream,” he said, “but we wanted to create a better quality product and be the first to introduce Asian-inspired, super-premium boba ice creams in a big way.”
In 2022, the ice cream and frozen novelties category received an $81 million venture capital funding, FABID data showed. Sales of plant-based ice cream and frozen desserts, in particular, are growing by 31% year-over-year, reaching $458 million in 2021, SPINS revealed.
Combating Supply Chain
Despite being a nascent-stage brand about a year and half ago, Boba x Ice cream onboarded a team of operators and experts from top ice cream companies, including Jeni’s, Ben & Jerry’s, and Halo Top, and has landed its first check from LegalZoom’s cofounder Brian Lee’s investment firm BAM Ventures. The company’s co-founder Doug Julian is also a serial entrepreneur whose technology company, HelloPrenup, was funded by Kevin O’Leary on Shark Tank.
Now Boba x Ice cream is on track to manufacture its own boba in the U.S. to combat potential supply chain challenges, according to Bak.
“Traditionally and today, all boba is sourced and coming from Taiwan and [other parts of] Asia,” he stressed. “This poses a challenge not only to boba companies in terms of supply chain, but also potential forecasting and transportation delays” since there was a boba shortage in 2021.
Bak added: “We look at this as one of our biggest opportunities to solve future supply chain issues and ultimately controlling our own R&D, improving formulations and flexibility in flavor development. We’re already on path to manufacture our own boba with IP around the process this year.”
Boba x Ice cream’s first set of six flavors, including gooey fried banana, double espresso, strawberry shortcake, salted ube s’mores, churro raspberry, and mango chamoy, debut through direct-to-consumer in 2023, with select varieties available on GoPuff. The company will also enter Sprouts Farmers Market nationwide this Spring, alongside its seventh flavor, black milk tea, developed in collaboration with the family company of late iconic martial artist, Bruce Lee.
“We kept consumers in mind and made all of our boba ice creams lactose-free,” Bak noted. “We’ve also put in a considerable amount of effort sourcing superior quality ingredients globally and using a culinary approach to create one-of-a-kind flavors that blend American and East-Asian flavors.”
Naomi Osaka, David Grutman Join Seed Raise
Upon Boba x Ice cream’s initial U.S. launch, the company has quickly garnered several high-profile investors, including Groot Hospitality’s founder David Grutman, and famed tennis player Naomi Osaka, to join its seed round.
Grutman has previously invested in a handful of CPG companies, including actress Gal Gadot co-founded mac ’n’ cheese brand Goodles, plant-based burgers maker Actual Veggies, and luxury cookies producer Last Crumb.
Commenting on his latest involvement in Boba x Ice cream, Grutman said in an email: “I love to look at brands that can be disrupters. And after tasting the ice cream and meeting Charn, it was a no-brainer for me. It’s also a great message that it sends.”
Stuart Duguid, who co-founded talent agency Evolve, alongside Osaka, also added: “We’re focused on new opportunities beyond sports and really believed Boba x Ice Cream’s team was bringing something completely new and positive to their category. Boba is global now and we’re thrilled to team up with an exciting new brand in ice cream as early partners.”
These investors, whom Bak described as “passionate trailblazers” in their respective fields, are expected to help scale Boba x Ice cream significantly by increasing its brand awareness, and expanding into channels beyond online and retail.
For Bak and his team, the rise of Asian pop culture bodes well for the future of their frozen treat startup. “We believe boba’s popularity is similar to the growth and rise of K-pop music and entertainment, where the fanbase is diverse and global,” he said. “We hope to add to this by showcasing the boba community and educating others around the culture.”