For two decades, Emily Shinohara enjoyed a flourishing career in the auto glass sector. But a trip to the San Francisco area about five years ago started her thinking about shifting gears.
There, she and her husband visited a branch of Bambu Desserts and Drinks, a chain founded by four Vietnamese sisters in San Jose in 2008. The Shinoharas had to wait in line, which gave her a chance to study what customers were drinking and eating.
Born in Taiwan and raised in Japan, Shinohara was intrigued by Bambu’s Vietnamese-inspired treats called che, made with coconut water, shaved ice, and various Asian fruit.
More than that, she was enthralled by the looks on customers’ faces, who seemed content to wait. “They just looked so happy,” Shinohara recalls.
She’d never worked in food service, but the idea of acquiring a Bambu franchise formed in the back of her mind. Shinohara watched as Bambu shops began popping up closer to home, in Grand Rapids, Canton, and Dearborn Heights, and visited them whenever she got a chance.
Finally, during the pandemic, she asked herself “what am I living for?” and decided she was ready to switch careers. In 2021, she opened Ann Arbor’s first Bambu in the former TCBY spot on Washtenaw.
Che desserts dominate the menu, in combinations like the Bambu Special, at $7 with fresh coconut, pandan jelly, and basil seed, and the Fruit Addict, for $6.25, which has lychee, longan, red tapioca, jackfruit, pandan jelly, coconut, and coconut milk.
I tried the Longan Surprise, at $6.75, and found it refreshing and filling, with a generous handful of longan, which are like large white grapes, in the bottom.
Cold tea drinks, which range from $4.95 to $5.75, can be served with boba (tapioca balls) or other ingredients like pudding and rainbow jelly. Strong Vietnamese coffee is available hot or cold. Bambu also offers smoothies and fresh juices.
Beyond drinks, there are waffles made to order, colorful macarons—a nod to Vietnam’s French heritage—and ice cream mochi.
Shinohara believes Bambu’s east-side location is an advantage over the boba café–clogged campus area, although even there, she had a college-town wakeup call.
On her first Saturday, Bambu was unexpectedly deluged with football fans. She suspects that some were stuck in traffic on Washtenaw, looked over at her café, and decided to stop for drinks to kill time.
“They all showed up at once. And then they left,” Shinohara says.
The fledgling owner, who rotates between the kitchen and the café counter most days, has no regrets about leaving an office job for one where she is constantly on her feet.
When I spoke with her, she had been operating for just two-and-a-half weeks but knew she had made the right decision. “I love it,” she said. “I just love it.”
Bambu Desserts and Drinks, 3354 Washtenaw Ave. (734) 263–2481. Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri., & Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Closed Tues. drinkbambu.com/menu/annarbor/