PITTSBURGH (AP):  Margaret Harris has stockpiled $50,000 worth of tea in her basement.

Ms. Harris, owner of Blue Monkey Tea Co. in Squirrel Hill, has been in the tea business for 20 years. In March 2020, as the pandemic hit, she realized there were going to be supply chain issues. She relies on shipments from places like China, where COVID-19 was quickly disrupting business as usual.

“I had to take a loan from the banks, and I ordered extra stash of teas,” she recalled. “We could barely move in our storage room because we had so much stuff.”

Like so many businesses, tea sellers — who source their products from around the globe— have had to maneuver to cope with the pandemic. Some, like Blue Monkey Tea, have chosen to stock up, while others, like Fuku Tea in Oakland, decided their best bet is to wait it out.

Fuku Tea has a sign posted that informs customers about the shortage of boba — those jelly-like pearls made of tapioca that sit at the bottom of a bubble tea drink — and limits them to only one topping per drink. Toppings offered include traditional boba, popping boba, red bean and pudding.

“We’re not getting the same supply,” said Hannah Ku, a senior team member who said most of Fuku Tea’s shipments come from Taiwan. “We’re asking for X amount of our tapioca or another topping, but we’re only getting way less than what we actually need.”

Right now, a 16-ounce bubble tea costs $3.65, and a large 24-ounce at $4.40. One topping is included in the price, but pre-shortage, it would run a customer an extra 50 cents per additional topping.


Holdups at ports

The challenges for the tea industry are coming from more than one direction.

A recent surge in shipping container costs has caused headaches for many industries, including the tea business, said Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the U.S.A., a New York-based organization that represents upward of 100 corporations.

“A typical 40-foot container out of China, which would have cost about $3,000 a few months back, is now up to $13,000,” he said.

A 40-foot shipping container can hold more than 2,000 cubic feet of volume, according to iContainers, a supply chain-tracking platform headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. If these containers are not filled or shipped, suppliers are missing out on a whole lot of tea.

Because of a lack of workers as a result of COVID-19, Mr. Goggi said there was a slowdown in the unloading and loading processes of large port groups like Los Angeles and New York.

As the globe now transitions out of a pandemic-centered world, there is a buildup of demand for containers, especially in Asia.