Plans for a new boba tea shop in town moved forward when the Menlo Park Planning Commission gave the proposal its full support on Monday, March 25. It would replace a shuttered cobblery, or shoe repair shop, at 993 El Camino Real in the small shopping center at the intersection of El Camino Real and Menlo Avenue.
The commission voted 6-0, with Susan Goodhue absent, to permit the boba tea shop despite limited on-site parking. Boba tea, or bubble tea, is a type of tea-based beverage that often contains milk, sugar and chewy tapioca pearls, among other variations.
The business applicant, Mandy Dang, explained to the Planning Commission that while no new parking is planned at the site, the business is expected to have rapid turnover, mitigating parking demand. Most customers will get to-go drinks, which take two minutes or less to prepare, she said.
Dang told The Almanac she's planning to open the shop, which will be called "Tea It Up," sometime in the fall.
"I simply love boba tea," she told The Almanac in an email. "I don’t believe boba is a trend or temporary fad. To me, boba tea is a combination of delicious indulgence and cultural appeal. Boba represents epicurean delicacy, youthfulness and timelessness. Menlo Park has been waiting for a boba shop, and (Tea It Up) is answering the call."
The proposal was met with enthusiasm by several commissioners.
"Menlo Park is in dire need of boba tea, so I hope we can make this happen," said Commissioner Michael Doran.
"Thank you for bringing tea to our town," said Commissioner Andrew Barnes.
Commissioner John Onken also supported the application and urged the applicant to put together "decent signage" that does not "look like some of the junkier shops we have around here."
Small business struggles
According to Jessica Roth, owner of The Cobblery on California Avenue in Palo Alto, the former shoe repair shop at the site was owned for many years by Ron Norbart, who worked with Roth's parents to bring Dutch shoe repair machines and techniques to the area in the 1980s.
Norbart ran the Menlo Park business separate from her parents' business, Roth explained, but they remained close family friends. In September 2017, Norbart contacted her because he had to leave the business, and Roth took over the lease. She said she tried to stay there, but noted that it was difficult to hire people to work in the store, and it eventually became infeasible to remain at that location. The store closed in June 2018.
Running a small business in the Bay Area, she added, is difficult. Paying for employees, rent and health care costs all contribute to pressures that are pushing small businesses to their limits, she added. She said she doesn't think small businesses will survive in the area unless it becomes easier for small business owners to provide insurance to their employees, or unless cities start buying buildings to provide below-market-rate rent to some tenants. Otherwise, she said, neighborhoods will suffer when there's no place for people to do things like get their shoes fixed, visit the laundromat, or go to the salon.
The Cobblery has acquired a new five-year lease, so it will remain in place for the time being. However, the lease did come with a rent increase, and Roth said she's had to take a pay cut.
That said, she added, "This is my passion. I grew up on California Avenue. ... I'd rather do what I like for a little less right now and still be here."