Bobae owner named to James Beard Foundation women’s entrepreneurial cohort

by Kevin Teeter |

Bobae Coffee & Tea co-owner Karma Lee has been named to the James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program’s winter 2023 cohort.

Bobae’s first location, at 14015 NE Woodinville Duvall Rd, Woodinville, is celebrating its three-year anniversary this month. The second location, at 168 Lake St S, Kirkland, opened in March.

Lee said that she felt humbled to be named to the WEL program last month, which includes chefs from all over the country. Lee is the only member from Washington.

“[I will be] working along with other really amazing female industry leaders who are doing something amazing in the United States and globally,” she said. “My fellow cohort members are, you know, pretty dynamic.”

She noted that one member is chef Christine Hà, the “Blind Cook”, who won season 3 of MasterChef and wrote a New York Times-bestselling cookbook.

“This cohort is here to learn from each other,” Lee said. “And then go out there and change the industry and provide more resources for people like us, which is a very meaningful thing for me.”

Lee owns Bobae with her husband, Joey.

“It's a lot more than just boba,” she said. “We don't really do boba like other people. We're really known for being more of a creative café.

”She specified that the café uses only real ingredients to make its drinks, rather than syrups or powders, and cooks many of those ingredients in-house. For its October “Rising Phoenix” drink, Bobae is using real pumpkin instead of pumpkin spice syrup. Another drink, called “Karma’s Pumpkin Pie”, uses an actual cheese cap rather than a powder.

“We’re known for sourcing through farms to straw, literally,” she continued. “I think people really like the fact that we are changing the dialogue in the industry, where parents don't feel bad about feeding certain drinks to their kids, because they know that the drinks are made with real ingredients, versus just some powders from–I don't know, somewhere.”

Bobae has also become known for its exceptional employee benefits, including a 401(k) plan, and mental and dental insurance. Next year, Bobae will begin offering paid maternity leave for new parents.

“I want my employees to feel that they're being taken care of when they're going through some major moments in their life,” Lee said.

When it comes to operating Bobae, Karma tends to focus on the creative side of things, like developing the menu, while Joey focuses on the financial component.

In 2020, the Lees felt the challenges of running their new business become compounded when the pandemic hit just six months after the first Bobae café opened.

“We really just hunkered down and continued doing what we believe in,” Lee said. “Providing a great service, storytelling, telling people where our teas and coffees are from, and changing our menu every month, allowing people to taste the real ingredient versus an artificial product, and really allow the community to rally and help us through it. So the community really stepped in and helped us in that manner.”