Call it the year of the city's big beverage scandal. No, not Gavin Newsom's affinity for white wine — which was revealed after the mayor admitted to having an affair with the wife of a close friend and political aide. We say that 2007 should go down in San Francisco history as the Year of the Tapioca.
After all, months before Supervisor Ed Jew accepted thousands of dollars in cash secretly supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, before the ensuing FBI raid and federal indictment, big trouble already was brewing in the Sunset District. But back then the battle wasn't over the supervisor's place of residence, bribery charges, or city politics — it was all about the tapioca.
Call it what you will — bubble tea, boba, pearl tea, or simply tapioca — the ball-filled beverage is big business in places like the Outer Sunset. Nowhere is this truer than on Irving Street, where the competition is especially fierce — with about a half-dozen shops between 20th and 23rd streets selling the beverage, which is believed to have originated in Taiwan. As more and more restaurants, cafes, and tea shops fill block after block of storefronts, tensions have been rising.
Take, for example, the feud between Irving Street tapioca shops Quickly and Wonderful Dessert & Cafe. Their rivalry became so embittered that it became the breeding ground for one of the biggest political scandals in the city's history.
It all began in the summer of 2006. Wonderful had been serving drinks at 2110 Irving for about 13 years without major problems. That is, until Quickly, the Starbucks of the tapioca business, made a deal to locate next door in the same building.
Wonderful's owner, Norman Tsao, was not pleased about Quickly — a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Kuai Ke Li Enterprise Co. Ltd. with 2,000 franchises worldwide — moving in on his territory. In July 2006, a month before the new Quickly opened for business, Tsao told the city's Department of Building Inspection (DBI) that construction at the Quickly site had caused damage to the building, including cracking and holes in the wall. DBI later served Quickly and the building's landlords, Wilbur and Dolores Woo, with a notice of violation for work done without the required permit.
A couple of months after Tsao's complaint, mysterious letters and faxes were sent to city officials warning about unpermitted construction work at what is now Wonderful's new location, across the street at 2035 Irving. One letter, signed by the "S.F. Equal Opportunity Business Association," accused the application for 2035 Irving of providing "FAKE information" for its building permit.
"We believed someone at Planning or Building Department try to cover their illegal activities," alleged the undated letter, which DBI received in Sept. 2006. Another, signed by "SF Irving Neighborhood," warned Wonderful was planning to sell fast food. The shop had been used as a retail store but not as a restaurant, meaning serving food to sit-down customers was not permitted. Like Quickly, Wonderful received a notice of violation for work done without permits.
It isn't clear who alerted the DBI, but Wonderful's backers have their theories. "I believe the people of Quickly's have been watching us on every move," Ken Cui, a friend of Tsao's, wrote in an e-mail to a city planner. "Quickly's has been very aggressive attacking us on every front and ... we have been hurt so badly."
Over the months, suspicion and intrigue grew. According to the Examiner, Quickly posted a photo of the two stores with the caption "Quickly (LONG waiting line) vs. Wonderful Food (No Customer)." Meanwhile, fans of Wonderful accused Quickly of going after the longtime shop's customers as well as its tapioca tea formula.
At some point, anti-Wonderful petitions started circulating in the neighborhood. Mandy Ho, who used to run a coffee shop named Sicily Isle at 23rd and Irving, says she signed one because she felt the shop was getting preferential treatment. "Why I go through all the procedure, and now they [Wonderful] don't have to?" she said. The anti-Wonderful petitions competed with another round of petitions signed by hundreds under the heading "Supporters of Wonderful Food Restaurant (2035 Irving Street)."
The feud didn't turn into a full-blown war, though, until February of this year. That's when, according to the federal indictment against Ed Jew, Tsao was told by the Woos that they wouldn't be renewing Wonderful's lease at its original location at 2110 Irving. Not only that, the landlords were going to rent Wonderful's old spot to Quickly, its next-door rival, which planned to expand. Then, according to the indictment, Tsao turned to the Sunset's newly elected supervisor to help him retain his lease — and, by extension, keep Quickly from muscling Wonderful out.
You probably know the rest of the story: Supervisor Jew allegedly shakes down Quickly franchise owners for tens of thousands of dollars rather than face being closed under the city's new formula retail ordinance; and Wonderful's owner, Tsao, purportedly pays Jew $4,000 cash in exchange for helping him get a city permit. (The indictment also says the Wonderful owner used six intermediaries to contribute $3,000 to the Ed Jew for Supervisor campaign.) Both Quickly franchise owners and Wonderful owner Tsao declined to speak with SF Weekly.
Between the alleged buyoffs and shakedowns, not to mention the arrival of a well-financed chain store, more shops on Irving are wondering whether they, too, will become tapioca war casualties.
Cindy Lu, for example, is afraid that she'll be forced to close her shop, Irving Cafe & Deli. Lu, an immigrant from Vietnam, has been selling her sandwiches, fast food, and tapioca for about 12 years but fears the competition is getting too stiff. She says that she can't compete with Quickly's prices. "If they have a chain, they can lower the price and still be in the business for a long time," Lu says through an interpreter.
And, she adds, there's a new threat on the horizon. There's a sign hanging in the window next door announcing the opening of a new shop. And with it, the Irving Street war may soon be raging on another front.