It's almost midnight on Thursday but the music and patrons at the Bubble Tea Cafe in Amherst are still going strong.
Teenagers and young adults are holding clear plastic cups of cold, fruity drinks that have balls of tapioca pudding rolling around the bottom. Through an extra fat straw, they slurp these marbled-sized gummy balls. All bubble tea has a base of either black or green tea. Some flavors have milk added to make it creamier.
"The pearls make the drink exciting," said Evelyn Song, a senior at Williamsville North High School who comes here three times a week. Unlike Starbucks, she doesn't have to worry about making too much noise.
"Older people have bars to go to," said Jeff Gearhart, 20, of East Aurora. "This is our bar."
The Bubble Tea Cafe opened in September 2001 and was the first to bring this unique drink to the Buffalo area. However, there are now at least four cafes devoted to bubble tea -- three in Amherst and one on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s and in the 1990s spread to California and cities such as New York and Toronto.
The question is whether bubble tea will fizzle as did New Coke or will it become as popular as lattes and mochas.
The mark-up on bubble tea is high, but not as high as coffee which is usually marked up several hundred percent. And bubble tea is more difficult to prepare than java. The tapioca balls take more than an hour to prepare and only remain fresh for a little while. Bubble tea cafe owners must know the customer traffic flow hour by hour or they'll wind up throwing away product or worse -- not having enough.
"Selling a $3 drink is not easy," said Dennis Yee, who opened the Bubble Tea Cafe on Sheridan Drive with college friends Eugene Leung and Rai Mra. "When people go into Starbucks, they're selling you a good cup of coffee and the image behind it. We're trying to sell you bubble tea and the coolness and hipness behind it."
And to make the business profitable, a cafe has to sell between 100 and 300 bubble teas a day.
David Genovese was a manager at a collection agency in Amherst and frequently stopped by the Bubble Tea Cafe, which has wireless Internet.
"The first thing that popped into my mind was that this would be great on Elmwood," he said.
However, Genovese put his own twist on the bubble tea cafe concept. He opened his cafe inside a furniture store called 20th Century Modern at Forest and Elmwood avenues. Patrons can sit on the modern Danish and space-age furniture while drinking bubble tea and if the couch feels comfy or they see just the lamp they wanted, they can buy it.
The Bubble Tea Cafe opened where it did in Amherst because the owners wanted to be near the state University at Buffalo, which has a large Asian population that is already familiar with bubble tea. The Elmwood Bubble Tea Cafe is trying to educate customers about bubble tea through its Web site www.WhatIsBubbleTea.com.
Some owners say the more bubble tea cafes that open, the more familiar consumers will be with the product.
At The Bubble T on Main Street, across from Williamsville South High School, owner Katherine Hoenig gradually introduces her customers to this exotic drink. First, she gives them a sample of the fruity drink itself. Then, she slips in a few pearls.
"Usually we say the first drink and the first sip you take is going to freak you out," she said. "But once you have it and get used to it, you love it and get addicted to it."
She and her partner, Jason Mussachio, opened the business in September and now also sell sandwich wraps. They believe more bubble tea cafes will open.
"I don't think it's going to go away," Hoenig said. "There's more places popping up all the time and bubble tea is catching on with a broader market."