Nestled deep within the West Side of Downtown Binghamton is Nihao Cafe and Tea House, a small family-owned shop that offers an assortment of authentic Taiwanese novelties — all in the form of tea. From the outside, the shop’s exterior seems simplistic, with only a single green sign hanging above its door. When stepping inside the space, the atmosphere is synonymous to entering a home, as the interior is filled with glimmering fairy lights, floral cushioned couches for a more intimate setting and plants lining the walls.
Emily Pan, ‘18, the current manager and co-founder of Nihao, first had the idea of starting the business back in 2012, when she had a dream one night of running a tea shop with her family in Binghamton. Pan and her family are local to the area, and realized there was a lack of authentic bubble tea establishments specifically around Binghamton and Johnson City. According to Pan, the dream was also perfectly timed because her father was retiring from a career in computer repairs and wanted to head in a different direction of business.
“I had a dream about opening a tea shop and funny enough, I think my mom also had a similar dream,” Pan wrote in an email. “The main reason we chose to start it in the Binghamton area is because we are locals and were already living in the area so it would be more expedient for us to be near the business for everyday commute and dedicate more of our time towards the business.”
Nihao Cafe and Tea House sells authentic Asian tea including milk tea, fruit tea, hot tea, slushies and smoothies, all of which can be served with flavorful bubbles or boba, the unique Taiwanese topping that is typically made from tapioca or fruit jelly. Bubble tea, which originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, is typically served cold with sweet tapioca pearls on the bottom, resembling the shape of bubbles. According to Pan, the bubbles are what makes bubble tea such a commodity and the reason why its popularity has spread outside of Asia.
”It’s such a novelty—a mélange of flavors and textures that can outcompete the monotonous and one-dimensional drinks such as an iced coffee or regular tea,” Pan wrote. “The limitless sweet flavors of the tea in conjunction with the perfectly chewy and bouncy textures of the tapioca balls or jellies is like no other, and it’s no wonder it has become so popular around the world.”
During the first few months of running Nihao, Pan and her family struggled trying to adjust to the demanding hours and labors of owning a small business. Pan wrote that the initial lack of experience of working in the food and restaurant industry while trying to maintain the authenticity of bubble tea was the most difficult barrier the family had to overcome.
“We brought the idea into fruition so fast … and we were also basically relying on our skills and knowledge at making the teas as authentically as possible to teas in Taiwan,” Pan wrote. “We did and continue to do extensive research and carefully cultivate our skills as tea makers to make sure we [respect] the traditions of traditional tea making with a modernized twist with the creation of bubble tea.”
The tea spot offers over 35 different flavors of milk and fruit tea on its menu, and each beverage can be customized to each customer’s preferences — whether it’s the type of base, sweetness level or topping. For lactose intolerant or vegan and vegetarian customers, there is an almond milk substitute. The most popular flavors are marked with a heart on its menu, so those who are indecisive or new to the tastes of bubble tea can play it safe.
After six years of running the business with her family, Pan said the best part about working is seeing the impact of something as minuscule as a drink can do to a customer.
“[Nihao] has been a place of joy and happiness to our little suburban community and for me, it is seeing everyone that has left the store left with smiles on their faces,” Pan wrote. “In all honesty, it is one of the best feelings to know you had a part in making someone’s day a bit better and doing something so simple like making a cup of tea [or bubble] tea for them could have such a positive impact on someone’s life.”