World Coffee Portal speaks with Gong cha Global CEO Paul Reynish and UK & Ireland Development Director Justin Goes about harnessing the huge potential of bubble tea in the UK, how speed of service delivers a competitive edge and why the brand has chosen the UK capital as its global base
Clockwise: A Gong cha store in Covent Garden, London; Gong cha Global CEO, Paul Reynish; UK & Ireland Development Director, Justin Goes
Founded in Taiwan in 2006, Gong cha operates more than 2,100 stores across 23 countries and has highlighted the UK as a key growth market as it seeks to reach 10,000 outlets by 2032.
What’s driving rising demand for bubble tea in the UK?
Justin Goes (JG): Bubble tea as a concept has been around for decades but has really started to capture the imagination of UK consumers in the last five years. We believe this is largely driven by three key trends. The first is consumers – particularly those under 30 – looking for alcohol-free alternatives when catching up with friends or celebrating a special occasion.
Secondly, consumers are becoming more focused on experiential products and services – bubble tea really plays into this with its customisable and innovative toppings, jellies, and foams. Thirdly, growing interest in ‘East to West’ food and beverage trends. Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed an explosion in demand for nearly all aspects of Asian cuisine in the UK and bubble tea is the latest category to enjoy growth as part of this consumer shift.
What was behind the decision to open Gong cha’s global headquarters in London?
Paul Reynish (PR): We believe that London is one of the world’s most important F&B markets. It is home to some of the industry’s best talent globally and often acts as the source of consumer trends that influence the continent. In addition, London is the best time zone to run a global business. We’re often on calls and online meetings with Asia in the morning, throughout the day with Europe and in the afternoon with the US.
As we execute Gong cha’s exciting international growth strategy, which includes significantly scaling up our presence in the UK and Europe, relocating to London felt like the most natural next step for us.
“The barriers to entering the bubble tea industry are relatively low. However, replicating product quality is the difficult part”
Tell us more about the operational benefits of Gong cha’s flexible store model
JG: While the customisable nature of our drinks may seem complex, the average time to prepare one cup – from the point of receiving the order to handing it over to a customer – is 90 seconds. Our model is a fantastic blueprint that ensures we serve customers efficiently while minimising the steps taken to maintain consistency. This is supported by our flexible store footprint. On average, we need an 8-10sq m service area, which can include the back-of-house too. This means we can roll out our brand into spaces where other brands may not – including underneath escalators in shopping centres or as kiosks in tube stations.
This approach is ideal for multi-site and multi-franchise companies that are already operating other food brands. Gong cha’s global success has been built on positive relationships with master and multi-site franchisees. In the Americas, for example, one of our franchisees has grown to operate more than 400 sites. In the UK, we believe we are at the start of the next phase of the industry’s growth journey and want to work with franchisees who are similarly ambitious and optimistic about the opportunity that bubble tea presents. This will enable us to scale up quickly, while driving operational efficiencies and ensuring product quality.
The average time to prepare one cup of bubble tea is 90 seconds | Photo credit: Gong cha
Do you see bubble tea directly competing with coffee shops in the UK?
JG: UK consumers drink two-three cups of coffee on average per day. As demand for bubble tea increases across the country, we are seeing a significant switch from coffee to tea occasions. Convenience will be key to driving this shift. That’s why our focus in the UK over the next 12-24 months will be to open more convenient, centrally located stores that provide an on-the-go alternative to coffee.
The barriers to entering the bubble tea industry are relatively low. However, replicating product quality is the diffiucult part. Consumers are turning away from low-cost, low-quality bubble tea alternatives in favour of higher quality. We work with exclusive suppliers around the world and use a unique blend of high-quality, freshly grown tea that sets our products apart. This is paired with innovative and exciting jellies, foams, and toppings – made by our industry-leading new product development team. This combination of incredibly quality with customisable toppings is not only hard to replicate but also helps encourage consumers to try bubble tea for the first time.
Is there a seasonal element to bubble tea consumption?
PR: Some of our best-selling products are iced; however, you can also get most of our beverages hot, so we see strong demand for Gong cha all year long. This is largely driven by our constant focus on innovation and new product development. This winter, for example, we launched a brand-new gingerbread beverage, which is sold in gingerbread shaped bottles. It’s highly Instagrammable, delicious, and incredibly popular – in the UK, it has already sold out within three weeks.
Is further European expansion on the cards?
PR: Absolutely! We believe there are opportunities to expand right across Europe. By 2032, we want to scale up to 10,000 sites around the globe. We currently operate just over 2,100 stores and believe a large proportion of our new store openings will come from Europe and the Middle East.
It’s too early to say which markets we will expand into currently; however, in partnership with our master franchisees, we expect to open more stores in Belgium and France in the near future. Our master franchisee in Belgium and France, Mad Vision Group, is also planning to launch in the Netherlands in the future, which we look forward to.
Paul Reynish is Global CEO and Justin Goes UK & Ireland Development Director at Gong cha