A former Ute linebacker brings a Tongan twist to boba tea

Justin Tatola opens Kiss My Boba Utah, a franchise of his family’s Bay Area business.

When a Bay Area boba drink restaurant decided to branch out, they kept it in the family — by opening a franchise in Utah.

Justin Tatola opened Kiss My Boba Utah in late September, following the business model set up by his brother, Willie, and sister-in-law Chelsea in northern California in 2018.

It’s a far cry from where the family members were three years ago. As they were launching Kiss My Boba in the Bay Area, Willie also was working as a particle scientist for Bayer, and Chelsea was a detective specializing in forensics. Justin was attending the University of Utah, where he played briefly as a linebacker for the Utes’ football team, helping the Utes beat perpetual rival Brigham Young University in the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl.

Why boba? Chelsea said that when she and Willie were dating in college, they would often go get boba — and drank so much of it, they decided to try making it at home, watching YouTube tutorials and taking classes.

“And then we were like, ‘let’s just have fun with it,’” Chelsea said.

They made gallons of boba for friends and family, and their drinks became so popular that they decided to turn their hobby into a business. They bought a beat-up UPS truck and fixed it themselves.

Willie said they wanted to find a name “that nobody would forget when they left the shop.” The name Kiss My Boba, he said, “just kind of hit me.”.

Chelsea said they were eating dinner with the family when the name was first mentioned. “Everyone just started laughing,” Chelsea said, and they all agreed, “that’s the name. We’re all laughing. We all love it, and you will never forget it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drinks for Kiss My Boba at ComCom Kitchen, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022.

A pandemic opportunity

The Kiss My Boba truck launched in 2018. Two years later, as the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Tatolas thought they would have to give up the truck. Instead, they found themselves with an opportunity provided by the pandemic.

The Tatolas applied to join Off the Grid, a San Francisco group that organizes events where several food trucks team up to serve customers.

“It’s kind of like the cream of the crop with regards to food trucks,” Willie said. “The best trucks usually go there. At the time, we were thinking, ‘We’ll never get into this place, but it’s a nice goal to aspire to.’”

They applied and got in, just as the pandemic was starting, when “the only people that were allowed to get into the [market] were food trucks. So we got lucky.”

In almost no time, Chelsea said, the truck went from no business to being booked for months for corporate events. “We’re still booked four or five times a week with the truck,” she said.

In October 2021, Kiss My Boba opened their first brick-and-mortar location, in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. To launch the business with a bang, the restaurant was open 36 hours straight on opening day.

Last month, when they celebrated their first anniversary there, Chelsea said, “we were open for 36 hours straight like we did for our grand opening, just as a fun thing.”

In September, Willie and Chelsea flew to Salt Lake City to help Justin with his opening of Kiss My Boba Utah, at 67 W. 1700 South, out of the business incubator ComCom Kitchen. Again, they did it with a marathon opening, pouring the first drinks at noon on Saturday, Sept. 30, and finishing with boba tea until midnight the next day.

Justin credits Willie for helping create the Salt Lake City shop’s unique setup. “So, my brother, he’s definitely a handyman. He actually made me a rolling cart that I use as my storefront,” Justin said.

(Kiss My Boba) Kiss My Boba food truck in San Francisco, Calif.

Boba with a Tongan flair

Kiss My Boba Utah features familiar boba drinks, such as the classic brown sugar boba that’s familar to fans of the Taiwanese chain Tiger Sugar, whose striped boba teas are a signature drink. The shop also offers such standbys as Thai milk tea and classic milk tea.

Because the Tatola family’s roots are in Tonga, the majority of the drinks at Kiss My Boba are inspired by Polynesian cuisine.

The most popular drink, in both California and Utah, is the Tongan mango otai. The shops also serve a Tongan taro drink, Polynesian POG (that’s passion fruit, orange and guava, with green tea), and White Rabbit candy milk tea (based on a chewy Chinese candy).

“We wanted to incorporate as many Polynesian drinks as we could,” Justin said. “It’s just a lot of great drinks that our people love. And they’re drinks that people who are not Polynesian would also love as well.”

Willie and Justin’s father hails from Lapaha, and their mother was born in Houma — both villages on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. The shop’s recipe for mango otai is hers, and uses fresh mango, grated coconut and milk or cream. (A vegan version, with oat milk, is also available.)

“It’s a delicacy that we enjoy as Tongans whenever we have celebrations to get together,” Willie said.

Their mother, Willie said, used to gather the ingredients, when available, and punch holes in a coffee can to make a grater.

“She would use that tool, and then create a drink over there to sell to the tourists that help support her family, to allow their meals for Sundays,” Willie said. “I thought that was really cool, that she was able to bring that drink over here for us to drink, but then also for us to use it for our business to establish her name here with a great drink.”


Finding special ingredients

The “boba” in a boba drink, the ingredient that gives them a gelatin-like texture, is tapioca boba pearls — though Kiss My Boba also has lychee and mango jelly pearls. Acquiring tapioca boba pearls is a challenge, Chelsea said, because they are imported from Taiwan.

In March 2021, imports were halted when the freighter Ever Given got stuck sideways in the Suez Canal for six days. “All the shops were trying to find boba from other shops that had extra,” Chelsea said. “People were buying storage units and buying up all the boba. Other stores had no boba. It was almost two months.”

Another special ingredient in the Tatolas’ bobas is White Rabbit candy — a staple of Asian markets. It’s wrapped in edible rice paper, and has a creamy vanilla flavor that’s perfect for boba drinks. Willie said he drew on his science background to create a way to process the soft candies into a sauce.

“It was more of a nostalgic drink,” Justin said, adding that he and his brothers enjoyed White Rabbit when they were kids in the Bay Area. “Whenever we went grocery shopping, we would try to sneak it into the bag. So it’s something we definitely wanted to incorporate into the menu.”

One of Willie and Chelsea’s most popular menu items is the drink of the week. They trade off, Chelsea said, trying to create a drink more popular than the other’s drink. One of their biggest successes, Willie said, was Brazilian lemonade. “I saw an ad randomly on TikTok,” he said. “So I decided to try and make it, and I tasted it and I loved it.”

Justin has started his own drink of the week around Halloween, with a vampire-themed “bloody taro,” a version of the taro drink using strawberry syrup to create red stripes. (“Those two combined taste just like Cap’n Crunch berries,” he said.) Justin said that as he gets his feet under him, he’ll be creating more such drinks, and announcing them on Kiss My Boba Utah’s Instagram account.

“It’s just a good way to test out different flavors, and see how people respond to it,” Justin said. “We always enjoy seeing people’s reactions, because they always come to get their usual drink. But we like to bring in new drinks and see the customers’ reactions, and see if they want it on the menu permanently.”

Kiss My Boba Utah is now open Thursday through Sunday, from 2 p.m. till Justin runs out of boba. You can also place orders online through UberEats and Grubhub.