Working for Boba Guys Comes With a Dollop of Toxic Workplace Culture

Workplace allegations against arguably the most notable Bay Area boba chain keep piling up — and make it clear working for the company comes with its own set of demoralizations.

What began as a self-described pipe dream in 2011, Boba Guys — the nationwide boba tea chain founded by Andrew Chau and Bin Chen (who met while working at Timbuk2) — has matured into fruition over the past eleven years. Their first store, the company’s Mission District storefront at 3491 19th Street, began like many successful restaurants in the 2010s: a popular pop-up that was snaked with long queues and became a darling among Instagram influencers.

That very same location unexpectedly shuttered Wednesday amid a company-wide backlash; this store’s closing also comes in tandem with accusations that Boba Guys has actively hired union-busting groups to thwart staff from organizing. 

This week proved illuminating as to how the company handles terminations — be they surprise or otherwise. As reported by Mission Local, two workers said they were fired for being caught on tape insulting one of the company’s founders during an in-store chat. The next day, reportedly 13 of the store’s 15 employees discovered they no longer had access to the company’s internal communication tools, like the company’s Slack channels. 

Their accounts were allegedly deactivated, which has since been validated through screenshots shared with media outlets.

Madeline Urso, who was a “Bobarista” — the entry-level position acknowledged at the company’s 23 store locations across the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York — was one of the two workers who lost their $17.52-paying job at the Mission District flagship. Before her termination, she and others attended a video call where Chau was heard by Urso arrogantly saying that if Boba Guys were to close, he “would lose everything” — “that it’s not just us that are going to lose things, that he will also be losing everything.”

Mission store employees like Zander Moreno have also noted that they and others were given unrealistic work expectations. Moreno tells the news outlet that it can take upwards of 50 minutes to properly boil and prepare boba, but the time they’re allowed to open and close the store has been slashed; it’s not uncommon for there to be no available boba in the first 30 minutes of opening. 

Per the San Francisco Chronicle, Moreno placed signs protesting management on the store’s glass façade on Tuesday — and the posters were swiftly removed by upper management (but not before people took pictures of them to splatter across social media).

There are so many unsavory workplace accounts at Boba Guys coming into the cultural fray that it’s hard to wrap even a single neuron around one, let alone all of them. At once.

We, however, have had the distinct pleasure of knowing many past and present Boba Guys employees through our years of sipping through the city.

After canvassing Boba Guys employees about their experiences working at the cult-followed tea shop, we discovered there was a common thread to all their experiences: navigating an overtly toxic workplace culture… oftentimes at the mercy of belittlements from one of the company’s co-founders.

Underscore_SF heard verified statements from ten individuals who either previously worked for Boba Guys or are currently employed by the chain. One individual had worked over three years for the company, helping to open their NYC flagship and occasionally working at the company’s Hayes-Valley store over the summer; another employee cut ties with the controversial tea shop after just fourteen months of employment; two individuals still work for Boba Guys — all the others who offered on-the-record insights have since left Boba Guys with no desire of returning.

Each and every one of them had experienced the specific cruelties that come from working in a workplace that puts profit over its employees.

“There are countless examples I’ve had with Bob Guys of being belittled or made to feel small,” says *CG,  a former Shift Lead for the company, to Underscore_SF. “Andrew began to constantly make it known that he was much more powerful and important than we as staff members were. Once when it was just him and I alone in one of the NYC stores, we began talking about who we would be voting for SF mayor as this was right after Ed Lee passed away… and he said that ‘his politics had changed since becoming part of the one percent’ and that now maintaining his finances was a top priority.”

CG witnessed many incidents of partiality by upper managers that allowed many of their “favorite employees” to get away with heinous actions; CG tells that the” abusive, racist and harassing employee at their San Carlos store” is an example of such an episode of favoritism; “toxic” was a word that came up multiple times when CG recalled her time at Boba Guys.

A Bobarista currently employed at the same NYC CG worked at DM’d _SF on Instagram with concerns about how management’s bias even trickles down to scheduling — “[my manager] picks and chooses from the people he likes and the people he dislikes to work, so there are basically the same people who get a lot of the shifts others want.”

Jalila Gizelle Tesoro worked at Boba Guys’ Union Square location from August 2021 to October 2022, where she was promoted from Bobarista to Shift Lead during that time. Tesoro defined her stretch at the downtown tea shop as one marked by feeling “mentally broken down at work a lot of times.”

“I felt quite overwhelmed with how much more of a workload would be put on us as employees with several responsibilities — responsibilities that Shift Leads and Bobaristas fulfill in a much more successful and committed manner as compared to higher management,” Tesoro continues. 

The labor shortages she spoke of began in early 2022, but they became severe around the time of July 2022. While working hours were cut — multiple former employees described their schedules were slashed sometimes below 25/hrs a week — numerous stores had their operation hours extended. Alas, many employees we heard from connected this to the company’s culture of burnout that ultimately forced a considerable number of workers to leave.

As for incidents of verbal abuse, Tesoro didn’t have any first-hand accounts of direct examples of them. However, she was unapologetic in describing that she never felt seen or heard by upper management — “they didn’t even care to remember my name” — and confirmed Chau’s “massive ego” he put on display during mandatory and paid corporate meetings.

A Shift Lead and Bobarista at the Topanga location in Los Angeles, who both wished to remain anonymous, tell Underscore_SF that it is common practice for Chau and Chen to stop into new locations and introduce themselves to new hires. It’s clear (again) that Chau’s ego entered the room first.

“[Andrew] had a whole ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude and turned his introduction into a sort of ego boost for him,” the Shift Lead tells us. “He quoted MLK, but a less popular quote, and started bashing the current education system, complaining that schools aren’t teaching us more about MLK. I was familiar with Boba Guys’ past racist scandal and saw this as a way to make him look not racist.”

These individuals, who still work at the SoCal location, tell us that they and others have requested the store’s central A/C system be fixed for months. During this summer’s brutal, record-breaking heatwave that descended on California, they and others were forced to work amid 90-degree temperatures inside the store. But employees at the Topanga location felt their complaints and concerns were “ignored” by upper management.

There remains no air conditioning inside the store; it still regularly gets into the mid-80s inside, according to employees.

*X was employed at Boba Guys’ Mission District location from September 2020 up until May of this year after voluntarily resigning. Like many Shift Leads, X became privy that there were considerably more issues behind the scenes than right in front of customers. They describe how a delivery member from their operations team would talk about the harassment he received from his “higher-ups” while working in the Boba Guys warehouse. After a customer physically assaulted two shift leads at the Boba Guys Mission location in 2021, X participated in a safety meeting with upper management to help mitigate such a scene from happening again. 

“Andrew and others in the meeting belittled us and our concerns,” X tells. “They prioritized staying open and making money over temporarily shutting down to make adjustments needed for basic worker safety.”

X, too, remarks how the store, itself, was literally falling apart: “Our store was noticeably in need of repairs to cover cracks and holes in the ground and walls, or even take care of the persistent rat problem we had.”

The toxic workplace culture swirling around Boba Guys has been observed by those who once freelanced for the company, as well. Another verified anonymous source was allegedly privy to one of Chau’s staff harangues.

“I went to the boba shop fifteen minutes early before I was scheduled to shoot and produce some digital content for the brand,” the individual tells us. “I overheard Chau yelling and belittling store employees for apparently messing up something. But when someone said I was there to Chau, his demeanor completely flipped and he became calm, kind, and collected. It was jarring to see that happen before my eyes.”

When they asked if everything was alright at the shop, an employee responded with a haunting truth: “We’re used to this now, it’s really common.”

Workplace standards are meant to be broken and tossed away when they connote inhumane norms. May your rose-colored glasses shatter into a million little pieces the next time you suck a tapioca pearl up a wide straw.

*Initials attached with an asterisk denote the individual’s preferred way to be referred to in this article

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