Boba tea — or “bubble tea” — has been around for nearly 40 years. Popularized in Taiwan, the sweet, creamy, chunky drinks have gained in popularity in the U.S. in just the past 10 years.
Perfect timing for Chelsey Ruta, who discovered the bubble-filled beverage while living in Japan, where her husband was stationed in the U.S. Army. They also had stints in Thailand and the Philippines, where boba is big.
“I just loved it, and I got used to being able to have it until we moved back to Sanford [in 2016],” says Ruta, a native of Moore County. “The only places near us that had it were Pinehurst, Raleigh and Fayetteville.”
Ruta wanted to bring it to Sanford, but she didn’t want to just jump into a business without doing her research. For two years, she did that research — visiting different shops around the state and looking at locations locally where a shop could succeed.
“I just felt like this could be something people in Sanford would love and something they shouldn’t have to travel an hour for.”
Ruta didn’t have to go far to find a business partner. Her next-door neighbor Brittany Nau — whose husband was also in the military and deployed when Ruta approached her — knew nothing of boba tea when approached with the idea. But she trusted her friend.
“We bought our houses [in Sanford] within a month of each other, and my family and her family instantly became connected,” Nau says. “Our kids are best friends. We hang out all the time with our husbands. It was just an instant connection. We’re more like family now. So when she told me, ‘Hey, guess what? I want to start a boba shop,” I just said, ‘Oh. OK.’ And the partnership was formed.
“I’d never even tried it before, and it’s become one of my favorite things now. I’m not a huge dessert person, so this fills that void.”
After a year-plus of studying and taste testing potential products, Ruta and Nau were ready to take the plunge. They just needed a location. They settled for 104 E. Main St. in Jonesboro Heights in an old garage and auto shop. The building needed a lot of love, but the location — steps away from a shaded brick-lined courtyard and small area for parking — had a ton of potential.
“Main Street is actually the second-busiest street in Sanford,” says Ruta. “And the fact that this is a standalone building that we don’t have to share and that it came with a park next door … we put tables out there, and it just had character. And we both love old buildings — we’ve put a lot of work into this, and I feel like we’ve breathed new life into this building.”
Already, the hard work is paying off. During their two-week soft opening — when Brick City Boba offered teas and smoothies (while still working on their ice cream station) and were open for just three hours in the evenings on weekdays — business was brisk and, at times, slammed. Their marketing consisted of a strong social media presence and a lot of word-of-mouth.
As for the offerings — the tea is the headliner. Black tea, green tea and jasmine tea on ice with your choice of several flavors, from coconut to Oreo, strawberry to mango, Earl Gray to coffee latte.
“We have all different kinds of boba,” Ruta says. “There’s the popping boba, which is liquid-filled and kind of bursts in your mouth. And that comes in several flavors. We also specialize in the tapioca pearls, which are little brown balls with the consistency of a gummy bear. And all of these are there to enhance the flavor and provide a snack and a cold drink at the same time.”
Each drink is sealed at the top with a plastic covering and comes with a large straw (big enough to get the bubbles up). The teas cost between $4.50 for a small to $6.50 for a large. Brick City Boba also offers smoothies and slushies, and most recently, it added rolled ice cream (also known as stir fried ice cream), which originated in Thailand.
Ruta and Nau believe in their product. Now they’re banking on Jonesboro Heights becoming more of a business-friendly strip full of walk-in businesses, with fewer empty buildings.
“We feel like based on the businesses that are here, the businesses that are coming, this area is really going to grow,” Ruta says. “We’ve already gotten a lot of people knocking on our door asking if we know of any vacancies on this street. We’ve seen people coming in from Raleigh scouting the area to do different things. We hope this happens, and we’re hoping for big things at Kendale [shopping center].”
— by Billy Liggett
What to Know
Brick City Boba held its grand opening on May 29 after a two-week soft opening. Here’s what you need to know:
Location: Located at 104 E. Main St. in Jonesboro Heights, Brick City Boba is a tea, smoothie and ice cream shop with indoor and outdoor seating.
The Bobas: We’ve tried the chewy tapioca balls and the popping bobas and loved them both.
Learn More: Brick City Boba owners Chelsey Ruta and Brittany Nau are
active on social media, with photos and regular updates on what they have to offer. @BrickCityBoba