St. George Street’s newest food truck, U of Tea, is the creation of five Rotman Commerce students hoping to put their classroom lessons to the test while sharing their love of bubble tea with U of T students. The truck opened this past January and sells drinks to passers-by in front of Sidney Smith Hall every weekday.
A market gap sparks opportunity
It all began in fall of 2021 when Ziyan (Xerxes) Xu and Ruijia (Cathy) Yang realized that there was no food trucks focusing on drinks among all the food sellers along St. George Street at the time, co-founder Fenglin (Hannah) Wang described in an email to The Varsity. Xu and Yang then hatched the idea to start their food truck specializing in bubble tea, and Wang joined the team, along with Shijia (Evelyn) Wang and Jingya (Rhea) Zhao. The truck now also employs Lei Zhao, a Master of Education student in the Language and Literacies Education program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“We started small, taking classes at local bubble tea shops and experimenting with new drinks,” wrote Wang. It was their first time building a business from scratch. “We have learned a lot,” she noted.
Turning U of Tea into a reality was not a simple task. Finding an insurance provider was the toughest challenge: before they found someone willing to give the group a chance, the team “faced rejection after rejection,” Wang described. Once they secured insurance, the group was then able to apply for a food truck license. But the team eventually realized the process was too complicated to navigate alone, and hired a professional agency to help.
Another challenge the group has consistently faced, Wang noted, is balancing their business management tasks with their studies and personal lives. The founders have gotten crucial help along the way. Without enough money to hire professional designers, they turned to their friends and fellow U of T students for help designing their menu and logo.
They also received a warm welcome from the rest of the food truck industry. “The other food truck owners on St. George Street have been very helpful to us, and we are grateful to them,” wrote Wang.
U of Tea now offers to sponsor some U of T club events by offering free drinks as the team strives to engage further with the U of T community.
Permit and persistent inflation headaches
Now, permit and inflation troubles remain amongst their greatest challenges.
As the other food truck owners working on St. George Street have mentioned, Wang noted that the City of Toronto’s tedious bylaws generally prohibit food trucks from operating in any single location for more than five hours. Wang wrote that the team hopes to eventually get a permanent parking spot on St. George issued from the university.
“The most rewarding part of our experience is seeing return customers and their satisfied faces when they enjoy our bubble tea.”Fenglin Wang
U of Tea also struggles to meet its mandate of providing affordable drinks as supply costs rise. Although inflation has been dropping due to recent aggressive efforts by the Bank of Canada, it still presents big challenges to the food truck industry. “Every cup of tea we serve is freshly brewed, so if we want to maintain this high-quality and affordable pricing, inflation hurts our profitability a lot,” Wang wrote.
Nonetheless, Wang and her friends find that the struggles are worth it. “The most rewarding part of our experience is seeing return customers and their satisfied faces when they enjoy our bubble tea,” she wrote.
U of Tea plans to operate year-round, continuing throughout the summer semester.