They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I’m not so sure that’s the case when it comes to small businesses.
I still remember the first real coffee shop Jonesboro got: Caffè Bueno. It was warm and dimly-lit, offered frothy espresso that I was too young to indulge in and freshly baked pastries that I did (much to my mother’s chagrin). It wasn’t long, however, before Jonesboro was riddled with coffee shops of similar design, all scattered throughout town. It was as though one person saw Caffè Bueno’s success and thought, “Hmm, I want a piece of that pie.”
The problem with sharing the pie in small business is that the more people who finagle for a piece, the smaller the portions grow…until there’s not enough for everyone and someone has to go hungry.
In a way, I guess that was my first lesson in supply and demand. You can’t supply more than there’s demand. Sounds simple enough, right?
And the thing is, I’ve seen it happen time and time again in this area. After coffee shops, it was cupcakes. After cupcakes, it was ramen. After ramen, it was…something. I can’t remember, because none of them lasted.
And now, it’s something rather novelty (for Northeast Arkansas, at least): bubble tea. Bubble tea, or often simply referred to as “boba,” is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. Its name comes from the chewy tapioca pearls that are added into the tea and milk blend before consuming. It’s been trendy on the West and East Coasts for years, but, naturally, some trends take a while to trickle down South.
When one bubble tea shop opened, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m all for diversity and new offerings, especially when they come in the form of small businesses I can support. When another one quickly followed suit, I couldn’t help but wonder if our town could support two enterprises selling the same exact product in which the demand isn’t really very high in the first place. I mean, we aren’t Los Angeles. It’s not like one shop’s in West Hollywood and the other’s in the Valley. Here, they’re mere miles apart.
And it’s interesting to think about how we as consumers divide our attention and our money. We want local businesses, so we have to support the local businesses we have in order for potential businesses to know they are welcomed and take the risk. So, I do commend these business owners, I really do. I’m just worried for them. Small businesses of the same ilk are a little like clothes: you want quality, not quantity – and sometimes, not at all if they’re consumer trends that may not stick around. And consumers can quickly discern small nuances and differences between these copycat establishments and choose their favorites, leaving the unchosen ones to wither.
To make matters worse, the United States is currently entering a boba crisis. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, both boba balls and the tapioca starch used to make the boba come from Thailand, and a massive shipping backlog is already hindering delivery. 99 percent of boba comes from overseas, and it’s likely that it will take months for supply in the U.S. to get back to normal.
Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the best time for that second bubble tea shop to open up.