Kiss My Boba co-owner Chelsea Tatola prepares a Tongan mango otai boba drink. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The ubiquity of boba drink shops in the Bay Area did not discourage Willy and Chelsea Tatola from pursuing their dream of opening one. Instead, it challenged the husband-and-wife team to offer something new and different.
“We tried to come up with a unique name that, once you came to our shop, you would never forget,” Willy Tatola says.
The result is Kiss My Boba, which launched as a food truck more than four years ago and opened a storefront in October 2021. It’s located on the busy El Camino Real in San Bruno, just 10 minutes from San Francisco International Airport. Chelsea Tatola says that nearly every day, she serves customers who have just flown in and happen upon the shop. But there’s also a steady flow of repeat customers from the area around SFO.
“A bunch of my husband’s family works for United,” she says, “which is just like six minutes from here.” It’s not only the convenient-to-SFO location that attracts customers, though — Kiss My Boba offers something that’s hard to find.
“Our most popular drink is a Tongan mango otai,” Willy Tatola says, “and it’s a specialty beverage that we’d have at our Tongan family functions.”
A Tongan mango otai includes shredded coconut and mango. Willy Tatola is Tongan American — he was born and raised in the East Bay, and his family hails from the southern Pacific archipelago.
Back when Kiss My Boba was a food truck, the Tatolas used to stop by cultural festivals around the Bay Area. One time, Willy’s mom mixed up a big batch of the special-occasion drink and brought it to the Kiss My Boba truck.
“She brought two buckets to us and it sold out immediately,” Willy says. “After that, it clicked in my head that we should sell this drink.”
They use his mother’s recipe, and while they still prep the drinks by hand, they have upgraded from small cheese graters to commercial-size shredders to speed up the process (and reduce strain on hands). It’s so popular that some days they’ll have a special order for 100 drinks. Combined with shop and truck sales, Chelsea Tatola says that can mean making up to eight 5-gallon buckets. They’ve also introduced a watermelon otai, but Chelsea Tatola says that’s not yet on the regular menu because it’s hard to bring in as much fresh watermelon as they would need.
Boba is made from tapioca, which comes from cassava. Though widely available now across the United States, the boba tea origin story leads back to Taiwan. But Willy Tatola says tapioca is also a staple in the Tongan diet. It might be served as a starchy side, he says, or in a dessert called faikakai.
“[Faikakai] has a tapioca base that we use. And it’s a similar texture to boba but just a little bigger,” he says, adding it’s served with a coconut cream and burnt sugar sauce. “Oh! That’s a good idea for a drink!”
Before becoming a boba drink developer, Willy Tatola worked as a particle scientist at Bayer. He enjoys how each new idea that sends him into the kitchen puts his science skills back to work.
“Iteration is key to getting the perfect recipe,” he says.
Chelsea Tatola says she grew up in a restaurant family. She imagined she would someday find her way into the food arena, though she doubted her skills as a chef. She pursued a career in law enforcement and worked as a police detective, which she was still doing when the Kiss My Boba food truck started to take off.
“We always had so much more fun working our boba food truck after work and on the weekends, that we’re like, 'We love this, why aren’t we doing this every day, all day?'”
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Empty storefronts during the pandemic offered an opportunity. They jumped to secure their current storefront space on the corner of a building with a small parking lot, where the food truck also can often be spotted loading up for an event.
On busy days, the line of customers can snake out the front door and along the front of the building, as happened on a spring afternoon when Kiss My Boba offered some of its profits to the local Capuchino High School music boosters. Inside, customers order from kiosks or speak with a real person and can choose from boba shop staples like milk tea and unique spins the Tatolas have developed. Customer Christian Medina says it’s become his favorite boba shop.
“The Grandma’s strawberry milk is to die for. It’s so good with black boba,” he says. “And the otai ... oh my, can never miss, you know?”
Denisse Ramirez says she lives close by and comes in often.
“I ordered the strawberry lychee green tea. I order 100% sweetness with lychee jelly,” she says, which is her favorite combination. “I really like that and also the mangonada,” which is a mango smoothie with chamoy and tajin to give it some spice.
The Tatolas enjoy playing with fusion — of flavors, cultures and colors — and nostalgia also features heavily on the menu. One specialty is a brightly colored presentation of pineapple, green tea, green apple jelly and a splash of cranberry juice.
"That drink is our 'Cool Runnings,'" Chelsea Tatola says. "That's one of our favorite Disney movies, 'Cool Runnings.'" It’s about the unlikely Jamaican Olympic bobsled team — and the drink’s dark green and yellow layers give a nod to the green, yellow and black of the Jamaican flag.
They’re also working on a horchata coffee, which will give a nod both to Mexican flavor and coffee culture.
“We’ve been learning and working on coffee drinks, too, for more of the day crowd that wants coffee,” she says. “Or maybe people come in for their kids, or someone else, for boba but they like coffee.”
With the boba truck booked solid this summer and walk-in business thriving at the shop, Willy and Chelsea Tatola are busy. And they hope they’ve given people a reason to remember Kiss My Boba.
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