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Bubble Tea, Virtual Jukebox May Fill in Former Coffeehouse Space

By Keith J. Winstein


An MIT graduate’s bubble tea startup company is currently the leading candidate to occupy the Coffeehouse space in the Student Center.

Ping Ping Chai, a startup company founded by Gong Ke Shen ’99 with outside investors, is seeking to open its “contemporary and casual tea cafe” in the Coffeehouse space, Shen said.

The company is so far the only contender to have made a formal proposal for the space, said Undergraduate Association Speaker Benjamin J. Zeskind ’03, stressing that the selection process was still in its preliminary stages.

“We’re really still at this stage of exploring different options and trying to figure out what students want and what’s in the best interest of the majority of students,” he said, referring to the Campus Activities Complex advisory board of student representatives that will make a recommendation for use of the space.

“I think they’d like to have something in place by when classes start in September,” he said.

An online petition for bubble tea in the Student Center organized by Johnathan C. King ’04, who also appeared before the advisory board, has garnered more than 400 signatures.

The board has also supported an effort by Mary K. Thomson G to survey student preferences for use of the space, Zeskind said.

MIT is not willing to fund new ventures in the Coffeehouse space, Zeskind said at yesterday’s UA Senate meeting. A competing proposal for the space “would need outside funding to be competitive, because [MIT doesn’t] have any money to spare,” he said.

Tea cafe plans modern ambiance

Bubble tea is a sweet flavored tea originating in Taiwan in the early 1980s and commonly mixed with balls of tapioca, giving rise to an alternate name, “pearl tea.”

“We hope to have a variety of offerings,” Shen said in an interview. “Not just teas, but pastry, maybe some snacks, steamed buns or pork buns or something.”

Pricing would be “reasonable,” she said. “If we do go into the Coffeehouse, the advisory committee will probably be involved in the pricing,” she said. For bubble tea in Boston, “the normal price is about three dollars.”

“Instead of just serving tea,” Shen said, “we also hope to have more technology focus. Not just because we’re working at MIT, but because I think it would work pretty well with our modern casual theme.”

“Something we’re working on right now is a virtual jukebox connected to a touch screen,” she said.

After working for Akamai, “I wanted to start my own company, but because tech is down right now, it’s harder to get funding for tech,” she said.

“I did some market research and found that Boston is pretty much a void for bubble tea,” she said, adding that her company, at which she is so far the only full-time employee, is “getting funding from angel investors,” private investors who function less publicly than venture capitalists.

“Our plan is probably to hire non-students during most of our day hours,” she said. “In the evening hours, we hope to be open fairly late, so we will definitely look into students.”

“I think it would be good, you know, adding more variety to the drinks at the Student Center,” said Torsak Luanphaisarnnont ’04, who has tasted Ping Ping Chai’s tea. “I like it.”

UA votes against flag pin proposal

In separate developments last night, the UA Senate narrowly defeated a proposal by Zeskind and Matthew W. Bilotti ’03 of MacGregor House to allocate $375 to purchase 500 American flag lapel pins to distribute to students.

“This was conceived out of a notion of patriotism, pride in one’s country,” Bilotti said at the meeting. But many senators questioned what message the UA would give by distributing flag pins in the upcoming weeks.

“It’s very likely we’re going to be dropping bombs in like a week or a week and a half,” said Jacob W. Faber ’04, who is running for UA vice president.

Harel M. Williams ’04, another VP candidate, suggested allocating money to buy “an equal amount of anti-war pins.”

Bilotti said the comparison was not appropriate. “I don’t consider the American flag a pro-war sentiment,” he said.

The Senate voted against the proposal 8-12. Zeskind said several councilors had approached him and Bilotti after the meeting to discuss funding the flag pin purchases with private donations.