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Let’s Eat: An instant hit

A team of three young entrepreneurs are behind Milktease, Thunder Bay’s first local shop dedicated to bubble tea.

Bubble tea is a sweetened tea with chewy tapioca balls (also called boba or pearls) and comes in a wide variety of flavours. Aaron Parrilla had his first experience with the popular drink in 2017, when he went to the Philippines to visit family there. “All my cousins, all they talked about was, ‘Let’s get bubble tea,’” he recalls. “I went to try it, kind of got obsessed with it, then thought, ‘Why don’t we have this here [in Thunder Bay]?’”

Back home in Thunder Bay, he talked with Hazel Capillan, who he says is a great cook. They then discussed the idea with Dave Salanga, who was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity, and the three decided to go into business together.

After starting Milktease as a home-based business in 2019, the trio got a storefront on Red River Road and opened on February 22, 2020. To their surprise, it was an instant hit.

“The most surprising thing was, when we opened the shop, the first day, there was a lineup,” Parrilla says. “We thought it would be a quiet, slow start, I didn’t think a lot of people knew what bubble tea was here in Thunder Bay. Surprisingly, we got really busy.”

The three had stocked up on enough supplies to last them for a month or two, they thought, but sold out in two days. “So we had to close for at least a week and wait for inventory to come in. It was fantastic,” he says.

The most popular item on the menu is the taro bubble tea, according to Parrilla. The purple drink is “vanilla-ish” in flavour, he says, but it has its own distinct flavour and is difficult to describe. If customers want to try something other than tapioca balls in their tea, there are also several kinds of fruit jellies to choose from. Capillan has also developed a cheesecake bubble tea with graham cracker crumbs.

Customers can pick flavours, choose sweetness levels, and switch to soy milk for a vegan version, so the drink is endlessly customizable. There are also snacks available, such as “bubble waffles” - waffles in the shape of bubbles. On the weekends, there are puto bites - they are a snack from the Philippines and are small steamed buns with cheese on top.

Milktease is popular with the younger crowd, Parrilla says, especially teens. The entrepreneurs initially created a “hangout space” in the shop, but reconfigured when pandemic restrictions came into effect, and now it operates as a grab-and-go place.

Parrilla had always thought about starting his own business, taking accounting and business courses in college. Milktease has been a “great start” for his entrepreneurial journey, he says, and he hopes to keep working to make it bigger and better.