This is a conversation many people like me have had, partially thanks to Singapore’s sweltering heat. Unlike the "old school" bubble tea stores which have a similar selection, "new school" bubble tea stores have diversified their menus to appeal to different groups of consumers. So how exactly are they different? Read on to find out!
The price of "old school" bubble tea ranges from $1 to $3. With $1, I am able to get my fix of milk tea with pearl from an independent neighbourhood store. On the other hand, "new school" bubble tea prices range from $2 to about $6.
There is not a lot of variety or differentiation in bubble teas offered in "old school" stores. There are, in fact, huge overlaps in the menus of different bubble tea stores, such as Sweet Talk and Bubble Cute. Other than milk tea with pearl, they sell drinks such as Oreo Crush and Love at First Sight as well. There are also fruit-flavoured ice blended drinks and typical toppings like pearls and jelly. On the contrary, there is a myriad of bubble tea flavours offered by "new school" stores, and the menu of one store is not like that of another. Playmade offers flavoured pearls such as burnt caramel, pink cactus and black sesame; LiHO sells avocado bubble tea and cheese foam topping; Tiger Sugar prides itself on its Brown Sugar Fresh Milk. Never would I have thought that bubble tea could come in so many forms. There are so many types of bubble tea now that consumers are spoiled for choice!
Levels of Customisation
Many drinks are pre-mixed in "old school" bubble tea stores. This limits the level of customisation consumers have on their drinks. In contrast, "new school" bubble tea stores allow for higher levels of customisation of drinks. First, consumers choose the flavour of the drink - type of tea, no milk, milk, fresh milk. Next, they choose their toppings - pearls, boba, pudding, aloe vera, herbal jelly, oreo, milk foam - which can be lower in quantity, or a mix upon request. Lastly, they pick their preferred sugar and ice levels. Such customisations suit the tastes and preferences of health-conscious consumers who want bubble tea.
Brands and Concept
Many of the "old school" stores are local, independent, and operate on a small scale. Some of these bubble tea stores sell food such as cheese fries, waffles and tea leaf eggs. They provide convenience and comfort food for many. Now that bubble tea is all the rage, many international brands, which make up the "new school" stores, have arrived in Singapore. The Alley from Taiwan, for example, sells pastries along with bubble tea; HEYTEA offers soft serve; I Love Taimei sells fried chicken cutlet and deep-fried snacks. Many of these brands are well-known, and each of them has a unique concept. KOI Express and I Love Taimei provides consumers with convenience, whereas Signature KOI and Chi Cha San Chen allow for experiential dining.
Most of the "old school" bubble tea stores are located in neighbourhoods, in the vicinity of schools. Majority of its customers consists of students. "New school" bubble tea stores are located in schools (like R&B Tea in SMU), heartland malls, tourist attractions, and town. Basically, almost anywhere and everywhere! They are more accessible than "old school" bubble tea now as we can order delivery for them via platforms such as GrabFood and Deliveroo. Furthermore, within Jewel Changi Airport, KOI Signature offers delivery to stores with a minimum purchase of two drinks.
“Out With the Old, in With the New”
After learning so much about the differences between "old school" and "new school" bubble tea stores, one question comes to mind. “Out with the old, in with the new.” Is this really true about the market for bubble tea in Singapore? Will "old school" bubble tea stores become obsolete?
As of now, bubble tea can be considered a trend. It is so popular that people are willing to queue for more than an hour to try well-known brands like The Alley. Not forgetting Daryl Yoon, who queued at 10pm the night before Gong Cha’s reopening. Additionally, there is an upcoming event titled, "The Bubble Tea Factory", which has garnered coverage on social media and news sites. This goes to show that bubble tea has become a very big part of the lives of Singaporeans. However, this trend only seems to apply to "new school" bubble tea. Wanting to try new things and seeking new experiences, we often make an effort to visit a new brand of bubble tea, instead of going back to basics - "old school" bubble tea. Perhaps these "new school" bubble tea stores offer something more refreshing (literally and figuratively), and that some of the "old school" bubble tea stores remain uninventive.
Yet, one can argue that the "old school" bubble tea stores offer nostalgia to some. There is definitely still a demand for “old school” bubble tea, as there are still quite a few stores around. But will nostalgia be enough for them to survive? Only time will tell.