Mathew Wong of Tea and Milk: Giving Back to the Community, One Bubble Tea at a Time
Craving bubble tea? Have some time on your hands? You’re in luck: we’re now offering DIY bubble tea kits in collaboration with Tea and Milk!
Tea and Milk was founded by three childhood friends who spent their high school years hanging out in bubble tea shops. They started as a stand at LIC Flea & Food, and after garnering rave reviews, a rabid fan base, and a place in the community, they opened their storefront in Astoria, Queens in 2015.
We had the chance to speak with one of the founders, Mathew Wong, about growing up on the Lower East Side, exchanging the world of law for the world of bubble tea, and what rays of light he’s seen through these current dark times.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I am NYC born and raised. I grew up in the Lower East Side. My parents raised my sister and me in the Seward Park Projects under one parental income. My father worked with CPC [City Planning Commission] and Maximus Health for a long time while my mother stayed at home to raise my sister and me.
My childhood was simple but fulfilling because my parents were always there for us. My sister and I didn’t grow up with a lot, but we didn’t realize we were considered poor because of financial restraints. Under the one income, my parents were able to afford to keep us in school, feed us, and pay for us to go to Chinese school on the weekends. It’s really inspiring now that I think about it.
What did you do prior to starting Tea and Milk?
I was a law firm accounting manager for 12 years (since 2008) prior to leaving the legal world. I worked with small to large law firms in the entertainment and insurance defense industry.
How did you and your co-founders, Wilson Ng and Kendy Ng, come up with the idea for opening a bubble place? Was it more about starting a business or more about the bubble?
The idea of opening a bubble tea shop came up in the beginning of 2013 because we were quite unhappy with our jobs at that moment. We were all high school friends, and all worked in different industries, but the common factor was the mundane and unfulfilling work that was done daily.
During that time, we constantly met up at the same bubble place to grab a drink after work to talk about our daily routines and eventually saw that we also routinely went to a bubble tea shop to meet up for chats. That was when we thought about starting a bubble tea company to relieve us from our nine to five.
What’s your personal favorite flavor?
My personal favorite back then was the taro milk tea. I used to love that vibrant purple drink that can be made with green or black tea. It was divine to me. Now it’s our brown sugar Earl Grey tea with signature cream and grass jelly!
What’s a common mistake that other bubble tea places make?
I don’t think there are common mistakes per se because the bubble tea industry started a long time ago and there weren’t any industry standards to lean on. There’s nothing wrong with how drinks were made back then, but now since food and drinks are becoming more farm to table, not being innovative with flavor profiles of each drink on a menu would be a mishap.
This is why we actually have a smaller menu than many other shops around. We focus on the flavor profile, quality and texture of each drink that we make. We call those teas our Concept Teas. One example that I always give is taro because I’m proud of innovating how we use real taro root to make taro milk tea. It gives the texture of real taro, sweet black tea, and a version of milk that makes it taste different from any other taro purple drink that our industry set as a precedent.
The times are so crazy right now, but we’ve seen rays of light here and there. What’s something positive you’ve seen come our during the pandemic? On both a business and personal level?
These are dark times for many people and as an optimist, I have had my fair share of anxiety going into this mess. One thing I did pick up on, which was a huge ray of sunshine, was the community support to their local businesses and vice versa.
Just like everyone else, when this pandemic first hit, we were scared and stayed home as instructed. We closed our doors in the middle of March to keep our team safe even when we were deemed as an essential business. We then thought of ways to give back because we saw our community in dire need of encouragement to keep the healthcare teams going and obviously to do what’s right. My father always told me to give back when you can because every little bit counts!
With that being said, we started to offer drinks to healthcare workers where the pandemic hit the hardest. As we sent drinks over to three hospitals, we realized we were digging ourselves into a hole! Without any sales and with more emails for tea donations to hospitals from nurses and doctors, we couldn’t deliver more drinks without compromising the business. We had to get creative and think of ways to keep people at home flattening the curve and be able to support our drink deliveries to healthcare teams and other essential workers.
This is when our general manager Jenn Nguyen and I thought about the DIY Bubble Tea Kits. These kits were brought to life three days into quarantine so there was no fancy wrapping or design. But ordering a simple white box with our logo on it meant the world to us and in turn would be donating to our cause.
The box orders help us in so many ways. They support us as a local business and help to keep our staff paid during this uncertain time. They help us pay for the drinks we’re sending over to healthcare teams and essential workers, and they help us purchase PPE [personal protective gear] for healthcare teams in the field.
The message was received well and we couldn’t keep up with orders for two full weeks. With the help of these kit orders, we delivered 1,800 drinks to USPS, EMS stations in Queens, the NYPD, and hospitals all over NYC to date. This is what I mean by the community support, and many businesses are doing the same to give back.
On a personal level, I got to slow down a little and sit back to just think about cherishing life and the people surrounding our lives every day. I reconnected with people and cherish my family and close friends more than ever. I also relived the accomplishments that I am proud of but never really took the time to give myself the commendations I earned. Mental health plays a big part during this pandemic, and we have to make sure we take care of ourselves and each other.
What’s your relationship with Pearl River (outside of our partnership of course!)? Do you have any favorite memories or products?
You know what’s funny is that I have always heard of Pearl River in its Cantonese name but never put the English and Cantonese names together realizing it’s the same place!
When I was younger, I recall going to Pearl River with my mom all the time because it was a sense of belonging and familiarity. It was her way to window shop in a place where she could speak fluently in Cantonese to the owners and workers. We could never really afford anything in Pearl River because we were trying our best to save money. However, I do remember my mom buying the little drum with the two strings on the side where you can twirl it around and it made this sound as you kept twirling it back and forth.
As you look back at starting your own business, what’s something surprising that you learned? What’s something you would tell your younger self?
Oh my, where do I start? I would tell my younger self to stop spending money on bars and nights out. Put in the work to get motivated to do something more meaningful because as cliché as this may sound, work isn’t really work if you love what you do, but looking for purpose and fulfillment takes time and effort. I guess I was lucky enough to be able to find something I was passionate about.
One surprising thing I learned is that there are no ordinary or routine days when you own a business. Every day is different. It could be a day where you get a call from Google and you need to cater their annual party and you have a day to put a team together for this project. And of course you do it because it’s Google! Or getting invited to become a vendor in conventions. You don’t say no to opportunities that makes sense! There are also days where there could be a problem with the back of house or something fell and stopped working, compromising work flow. Never an ordinary day, I swear!
What’s something your obsessed with right now? Something that you’ve been telling people, “You’ve got to watch/listen to/read/eat/drink this?”
I’ve been very obsessed with the shows New Amsterdam, which is about a hospital, and Money Heist (La Casa De Papel) on Netflix as well as playing Modern Warfare Warzone, listening to The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times, and How I Built This with Guy Raz on NPR. These obsessions help me relieve stress and learn at the same time so I feel like it’s a win-win situation.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To turn back time. There are a few moments in my life that I want to go back to and see what a different choice would look like.Tea and Milk’s DIY bubble tea kits are now available! You can also learn about the history of bubble tea and check out our other interviews with Asian American entrepreneurs.