If you have ever tasted the bubble tea, a cold drink made with iced tea, sweetened milk and normally sweet black balls or “pearls” made from tapioca, at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, then you know it’s a tasty treat.
Local therapist and Taiwanese-American Jaja Chen and her husband, Devin Li, a high school engineering teacher and Chinese immigrant, began the bubble tea business with the idea of sharing their native cuisine with locals while connecting the cultures in the community.
So, when Li and Chen took a continuing education seminar called “Waco 101: How to Grow a Downtown” from Act Locally Waco, the three-hour class was all they needed to decide to invest their time and money in their own city, too.
And so, Waco Cha was born.
“Ashley Bean Thornton, one of our instructors who hosted the course, challenged us near the end of that class to fully invest in downtown, including through our finances,” Li said. “To care for and support downtown means to choose to spend time, energy and money downtown.”
Li said he and his wife left the course with a challenge to see how they could move from just wishing Waco would develop into them becoming a part of the change they wanted to see.
“Waco Cha has been a dream of ours for quite a few years,” Li said. “We would always joke about starting a farmers market stand to increase the diversity of food options in Waco. That joke eventually became a reality through our August 2018 launch.”
Data from New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors, on the role immigrants play in entrepreneurship, nationally and locally report that in Texas immigrants are 28.9 percent of the self-employed population, even though they are only 16.7 percent of the state’s population.
With Chinese and Taiwanese cultural and ethnic roots, Li is originally from China and immigrated to Texas when he was 13 years old. Chen is from Oklahoma and grew up in a Taiwanese immigrant family.
“Waco Cha is inspired because of our Chinese and Taiwanese background and because we grew up in America as immigrants or part of immigrant families,” Chen said. “For example, each summer I would visit my extended relatives in Taiwan, and we would enjoy Taiwanese street eats and bubble milk tea. Many do not know that bubble milk tea originated in Taiwan.”
Through Waco Cha, Chen said they can sell authentic bubble milk tea to the Waco community, sharing their culture and giving back by using locally sourced milk and a Texas premium tea distributor, Kai.
“At Waco Cha you will find authentic organic Taiwanese-inspired tea drinks such as classic bubble milk tea made from local organic milk, passion fruit green tea, among other fruit tea flavors,” Chen said. “All our teas are made from loose-leaf tea leaves; we do not use any artificial powders in our drinks. We also serve homemade Agua de Jamaica and Horchata. Dairy-free options for drinks are also be available and we have a rotating seasonal menu.”
They also plan to sell Chinese dumplings, Chinese-inspired rice bowls, and other side dishes in the future. An upcoming Dumplings Night workshop April 12 at the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Waco Cha-Taranga — a popup yoga plus boba bar event at the WacoWork coworking space will be the first event for them to serve food.
But first, the food truck.
“We purchased the Waco Cha food truck a little over three weeks ago,” Chen said. “Since launching at the farmers market last June 2018, we have had a dream in expanding beyond Saturday’s at the market.”
The food truck is under renovation, but they plan to launch it downtown this summer, the one-year anniversary of Waco Cha.
“The food truck will also allow us to increase Waco Cha store hours and provide more catering events,” Chen said.
Thornton, director of Act Locally Waco, said she is thrilled with her students’ entrepreneurship.
“That’s exactly what we were hoping would happen with the class,” Thornton said. “We wanted people to feel like downtown belongs to them and that they could be a part of the exciting things happening there … whether as a consumer, a resident, an investor or a business person. Jaja and Devin really took it seriously and found a way to help build the kind of downtown — and Waco — they want to live in. I think that’s terrific.”
Since 2016 the couple has lived downtown and recently purchased a home there.
“Being a part of the downtown growth and development through the Waco Downtown Farmers Market is filled with excitement,” Chen said. “In addition, we look forward to being able to give back more financially to the community through a percentage of sales when we start up our food truck and increase revenues.
“There are many opportunities throughout Waco for businesses to be able to give back through social entrepreneurship and financially. We are still exploring what that will look like for us as we expand.
“Since opening Waco Cha, we have been able to continue living out our mission of bridging cultures and communities through food and beverages.”