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Ethan Phan and Terry Phung of UniTea

Bubble Tea from Honorary Relatives

UniTea finds a campus spot, while Boba Tea House brings bubbles to Scio.

by Micheline Maynard

From the September, 2021 issue

In contrast to Stray Hen's lengthy lead-up, UniTea seemed to pop up almost overnight. Owner Ethan Phan says it feels that way to him, too.

In mid-June, he heard that Iorio Gelato was giving up its longtime spot in Maynard House to partner with the Original Cottage Inn (Marketplace Changes, August).

Phan asked his agent to inquire, quickly signed a lease, and obtained the needed permits. His cousin Terry Phung helped him convert the small shop into a cafe serving a variety of beverages and sweets.

UniTea held its soft opening on July 21 and its grand opening a week later, attracting an unexpectedly steady stream of customers. "We thought it would take a lot longer" to be discovered, Phan says.

But Phan and Phung had a ready-made fan base. A number of their initial customers were fans of VKitchen, the Vietnamese restaurant the cousins opened on Eisenhower in 2015.

Phan said he'd been thinking about opening a boba tea place for several years. He held off for a number of reasons, including a hint that can be found in the shop's name.

Although pronounced "unity," the "uni" actually stands for "university," reflecting Phan's goal of being near campus instead of taking another strip mall space, like VKitchen's in the Colonnade.

He also was not interested in buying into a boba franchise. As an independent player, "we can create whatever we want," he says.

Phan says he's focusing on items other shops don't offer, such as the strong Vietnamese iced coffees that are the centerpiece of his menu.

Diners can choose from traditional, with condensed milk, as well as flavored toppings such as coconut, hazelnut, coffee, caramel, and cheese foam, all at $4.75. Extra ingredients like boba, pudding, and coffee jelly cost seventy-five or eighty-five cents extra.

He also is stressing fresh fruits, like the generous portion of mango in the Mangonada, at $5.50, a slushy concoction laced with lime juice and accessorized by a tamarind-coated straw. The Sticky Mess, at

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$6, has avocado, condensed milk, and hazelnut flavoring. Other drinks are made with fresh pineapple and the purple yam known as ube.

Mango is repeated in a fruit-studded soft-serve cup that has been so popular Phan asked customers to name it. Their answer: Flamango.

An especially photogenic treat is the $7.50 "fish waffle"--a fish-shaped waffle whose mouth is filled with soft-serve. "It's something cool for them at night," Phan says of customers.

Diners place orders on touch screens, which avoids having a line build in the small space, Phan says.

He is considering opening in the morning once students return to campus and is developing seasonal flavors. Watch for his riff on pumpkin spice and some other special treats for Halloween. "We want to make it fun for people," he says.

UniTea, 522 E. William, (734) 436-8945. Daily 2-10 p.m.     (end of article)


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