Bay Area Disrupted: How the boba shortage reflects a pandemic-strained supply chain

[A version of this story was published in Bay Area Disrupted, The Chronicle's newsletter about the Bay Area's pandemic transformation. Sign up for the newsletter here.]

At the start of the month, around two dozen big ships were waiting in line to unload at the Port of Oakland, an “unprecedented” challenge that could delay everything from electronics to clothing to, yes, boba tea from reaching consumers. The port reported record-high container volume for both imports and exports in March, including a 45% surge compared to last year, as the pandemic was taking hold. The port expects the surge to last for months or more.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two busiest, are seeing similar traffic jams.

“The shortage isn’t just about boba, but the entire ecosystem that depends on overseas inventory,” said the owners of popular chain Boba Guys, which also runs a Hayward boba factory, on Instagram last week. “The point is, this is going to be very messy. And if it’s messy for us, it’ll be messy for small businesses across the country with much less infrastructure.”

They’re now considering a pause on selling their namesake boba across stores and urging customers to buy other toppings.

On one hand, this is a sign of an economic boom: Factories in Asia have come roaring back, and economists predict a robust U.S. recovery this year. (The International Monetary Fund predicts 6.4% GDP growth this year, compared to a 3.5% contraction last year.)

On the other, it’s a sign that the wounded regional and global economy may struggle to keep up, and old struggles persist. A major challenge for ports is a shortage of workers. As Bay Area restaurants reopen for indoor dining, they’re facing similar staffing challenges, which was already the case before the pandemic. Now it’s exacerbated by all the workers who have left the region or the industry.

Consumer demand, especially for online shopping, is also reshaping our cities. The East Bay industrial market — which includes the warehouses that store items unloaded from ships — has a tiny vacancy rate of 2.8% and new projects totaling 1.28 million square feet are under construction, according to real estate broker CBRE. Office vacancy rate is 10.2%. In San Francisco, Amazon is trying to build a last-mile delivery center on a site where housing was previously proposed.

How has the pandemic changed your shopping habits? As restrictions lift, do you plan to do more in-person shopping, or are your pandemic preferences becoming permanent? Have you noticed any shortage? Get in touch with me at or on Twitter @rolandlisf.

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