Bobae Coffee & Tea, located in downtown Woodinville, prides itself on making the best possible product.
Owners Joey and Karma Lee do things a little differently at their “creative cafe,” which opened in September 2019. Bobae focuses on “farm-to-straw mentality” with an emphasis on natural ingredients from local providers and farms. With all products made in-house, the small business stays away from powders and fake syrups.
“There's just so many places that offer quick and easy powder or syrup-blended drinks and people’s idea of bubble tea, or even a good cup of coffee, is so different from the truth,” Karma Lee said. “I felt it was my responsibility to change the dialogue, allowing people to learn the different cultures of what tea should be.”
Karma said tea is celebrated in the Asian culture for bringing people together. The farming process of tea is laborsome, she noted, resulting in many different processes to create a good cup of product.
“We're not a vending machine,” she said. “We really handcraft every single thing that goes out, so there's a lot of love that goes into everything. It's been pretty fun to be creative, but also really takes drinks to the next level by providing a new standard for what people should be drinking.”
Bobae updates its rotational menu monthly to “piece everyone’s palate with better ingredients,” Karma said. Not only is the cafe geared toward tea and coffee, but it has gained popularity as a source for boba doughnuts of rotating flavors.
Karma said the doughnuts are only served on a monthly basis because the process is extremely labor intensive. The Asian fusion dessert includes unique outside-of-the-box flavors, such as matcha, brown sugar boba, pumpkin and ube.
Due to high demand, the doughnuts typically sell out within 30 minutes and people set alarms ahead of time so as not to miss a taste.
Bobae has also become well-known for its Nitro tea, which uses nitrogen particles to create tiny bubbles and a creamy, silky texture. There is no chemical process since 80% of nitrogen is in the air already, Karma noted. Essentially, she added, they convert the gas into liquid form.
She said Bobae uses some of the highest quality loose leaf tea, while other establishments prefer cheaper options that result in a bitter flavor.
“And because of poor education on tea, a lot of people think bitter tea means it's good,” Karma said. “Oftentimes, that's not the truth. Actually, it should be light and complex, and it shouldn't be overly bitter.”
Before opening Bobae, the Lees worked with tea masters in China, Japan, Thailand and Korea to hone in on their process.
Karma said she walked away from a lucrative career after deciding she did not want to work for somebody else. She wanted to provide a place for the community where she could create her own work culture.
The Lees did a lot of pivoting to keep customers and staff safe during COVID-19. Opening just a few months before the outbreak, Karma claims the identity of the business was built upon the pandemic.
Joey said the staff at Bobae is trained to have a “high-resiliency factor” and great customer service, creating a unique experience for customers. With something like COVID, he noted, the team has to stick together. Each team member has a specific role in the business, which helped them to stay alive during the thick of the pandemic.
“We didn't really let anyone go because of COVID, and we made a very conscious choice to keep them on payroll, even when we were going negative,” he said. “They have helped us. They are part of our team and we don't leave our team behind.”
Karma said the community has been incredibly receptive to the cafe, helping them to stay in business throughout the last year.
“The people who love Bobae have such class and love and kindness, and nobody needs to change,” she said. “We have some of the best customers in our community.”