In Waco, where it seems like we have a quaint coffee shop on every corner, a mid-afternoon coffee run is all too familiar. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a cup of joe, there’s another way to satisfy that caffeine hankering: Boba tea.
Originating from Taiwan, boba tea is a tea-based drink that often includes tapioca balls, milk, or a wide range of other flavors and toppings that can be customized to your taste. Luckily, this delicious Taiwanese drink can be found right here in the heart of Texas at Waco Cha; where you can come for the tea but stay for the community.
Waco Cha was started in 2018 by former high school engineering teacher and Chinese immigrant Devin Li, and his wife, Taiwanese-American Jaja Chen. What began as a pop-up that weekly attended the Downtown Waco Farmers Market has turned into a special space that enables people of all backgrounds to bridge cultures and create community through premium tea and food.
The child of Taiwan immigrants, Jaja was born and raised in Oklahoma until the age of 13 when she and her family moved to China for her parents’ work. Her husband, Devin’s story is just the inverse. Devin grew up in China and immigrated to Houston at the age of 13. While their stories are flipped, Devin and Jaja’s journeys crossed paths at a Bible study after they both came to Waco to attend Baylor. The Bible study was for international students, and while neither Jaja nor Devin were international students, their Chinese and Taiwanese cultures connected them.
The two dated long distance for a few years while Devin had a full-time mechanical engineering job in Houston and Jaja pursued social work in Waco. Devin returned to Waco in 2014 just before the two were married and took a job teaching high school mechanical engineering, a career shift that would unknowingly turn out to lay the foundation for the vision for Waco Cha.
“I have such a distinct memory of the day when Devin came home and said, ‘What do you think about me as a teacher?’” Jaja said. “The engineering high school teacher job is so pivotal to why we actually started our business,” she continued.
Devin’s high school had a predominate minority student population. As one of the younger teachers, many students felt they could connect with Devin, and they trusted him as a valued mentor. Over time, Devin heard countless stories from diverse students who expressed that they felt lost and disconnected in the midst of Waco’s extreme growth and sought a way for their cultures to be represented.
“He was a teacher at that point  and I was a social worker at a nonprofit and we were thinking about ways we could be part of the change we wanted to see when it comes to cultural representation in our city,” Jaja said.
Out of this yearning to increase cultural diversity, collaboration, and representation, Waco Cha’s vision was born.
We weren’t really even thinking about starting a business at that point, we just wanted to get involved in supporting small businesses, and especially minority small businesses, in the Waco community,” Jaja said.
Before they even know what their product was going to be, the two knew they wanted to create a space in the Waco community that would facilitate conversation and allow people to meet others with different backgrounds and beautiful cultures.
With Devin’s passion for cooking and culinary innovation, and Jaja’s heart for hospitality and community-building, they decided on opening a Taiwanese food pop-up at the Waco Farmers Market.
Even though we didn’t have the name for Waco Cha, we had the values and mission already in mind,” Jaja said. “We didn’t even know exactly what the menu was going to look like, we just knew we wanted a business that would seek to bridge cultures and create community,” she continued.
In 2017, they began experimenting with recipes and eventually focused on creating premium, authentic, Taiwanese boba tea. Their first pop-up was in April of 2018 and by June, the Waco Cha tent was open at the farmer’s market every Saturday.
Diversity, community and courage was the DNA of Waco Cha before the entity even existed. Throughout the expansion of the business, this DNA has remained at the core of everything Waco Cha does. In the summer of 2019, the pop-up expanded to a food truck that allowed for increased hours of operation and more mobility, but even the food truck wasn’t meeting the demand in time. Wacoans fell in love with Waco Cha.
In the fall of 2019, Devin and Jaja rented a space in downtown Waco, began renovation, and opened the Waco Cha shop in May 2020. Throughout each step of the process, Waco Cha has strived to be intentional at inviting people into the conversation on embracing all the beautiful cultures in our community.
Ultimately, Waco Cha is about way more than Tapioca, it’s about creating space at the table for every voice to be heard.