Smile Politely

Illini alumni chat about opening Teamoji and the bubble teas on the menu

Once Teamoji officially opened in the fall of 2017, I was eager to try it. It was a new bubble tea spot on Green Street, and the drinks pictured in the posters on their shop windows looked beautiful and refreshing. The signature fruit tea with boba was the first drink I tried. It was citrusy and sweetened to my liking. I loved it. Since then, Teamoji has been one of my go-to spots for iced tea or milk tea.

To learn more about Teamoji’s menu and the people running the shop, I talked with co-founder Alex Zhang and general manager Jeffrey Chang of Teamoji.

Smile Politely: Hello, what are your names and roles at Teamoji?

Alex Zhang: My name is Alex Zhang, and I’m the co-founder and general manager of Teamoji. We started in the hospitality industry in 2017.

Jeffrey Chang: Hi, my name is Jeffrey Chang. I’m the general manager of Teamoji. I also assist Alex with other restaurants, Howdy Burger and the Summer Lounge.

SP: Alex, what inspired you and Jerry to open to Teamoji?

Zhang: We are recent Illini alumni and graduated in 2016. When we were undergraduate students here, the beverage options were kind of limited as well as the entire restaurant industry. We do see in the press that there are some students that open a business and some succeed and some fail, but we really see them bring changes. They bring a new element to the Champaign town. After we finished one year of graduate study in New York City and California, Jerry and I decided to go back to our alma mater and open something new for the community.

We chose bubble tea because it’s relatively popular in our Asian country and also being more recognized in the U.S. market as well. We saw the potential, and it’s also a relatively safer place to start, so we decided to open Teamoji first as our lab or playground.

A white drink with dark boba at the bottom in a plastic cup sits on a white square coaster with fall leaves in the background. Photo by Teamoji.

Photo by Teamoji.

SP: Is Teamoji you and Jerry’s first business together?

Zhang: We were engineering students, so all the studying kept us quite busy. But, we did benefit from the curriculum here. We got all these thinking skills and time management skills we need. We really benefitted from studying here which makes our first shop quite a good start. I don’t want to say we’re very successful right now, but we are always improving, and we have made good progress since three years ago when we opened.

SP: When you opened Teamoji, were you guys ever worried about the competition from the other bubble tea spots on Green Street?

Zhang: We are not worried about it. We always want to see that there’s a good competition on the market so that everybody can improve the quality. We have unique customer bases. In general, I would say we are the top tier bubble tea shop in the Campustown.

A small strawberry tealatte sits on a large circular marble tray with matcha powder and sliced strawberries. Photo by Teamoji.

Photo by Teamoji.

SP: What do you love about running a bubble tea shop?

Zhang: Running the business side of generating profit for sure is the most exciting thing because we’re always improving ourselves. We almost launch a new line of products every semester to bring something new to the students. They never get tired of our drinks. They always get something new and exciting. We also encourage local businesses to think about something better. Maybe before Teamoji, bubble tea shops could keep their menu the same for three to five years, but with our updates, other people will also follow our lead. I think that’s a very positive impact on the community.

SP: What would you say is the most popular drink at the moment?

Zhang: I think the most popular is still the Signature Fruit Tea (C1). From the first day we opened, we still don’t have anything else that can beat its position. After that, we introduced the strawberry matcha lattes that were still very popular in 2019. We also have a strawberry pineapple drink that heading in 2020 has become more popular as well.

SP: What is your favorite drink?

Zhang: I like to drink tea, so I have probably two favorites. The first is Oolong Milk Tea (A3). We roast the oolong tea leaf and brew it with a specific temperature and time it so we can get the flavor and aroma at the level we desire. Even people who never drink tea can try it and love the rich taste of the oolong tea. Another favorite of mine is Thai Iced Tea (D1). It’s is a very refreshing tea flavored drink during the summertime.

Two sticky rice balls, one sliced open revealing the chopped strawberries inside the pastry, sit on a white plate. Photo by Teamoji.

Photo by Teamoji.

SP: What’s your favorite treat from the bakery?

Zhang: I really enjoy the Sticky Rice Ball (F5). It’s a rice ball that comes with cream and fresh fruit. The texture is a bit like the mochi in Japanese cooking. It’s very popular, especially for delivery orders.

SP: Teamoji offers different drink toppings, including red bean, coconut jelly, lychee jelly, grass jelly, pudding and oreo. For people who don’t know which toppings to pair with which drink, what would you recommend they try?

Zhang: For jelly, I recommend fruit tea. They have a chewy texture, and they’re also a little bit sweet and fruity. We recommend the red bean and the pudding for hot drinks, especially in the wintertime. They’re both really good for hot tea or hot milk, and they really calm people down and warm them up during the winter.

A Teamoji cheesefoam strawberry drink with a black cover sits on a wooden table with a white brick background. Photo by Teamoji.

Photo by Chantal Vaca.

SP: This past summer, I enjoyed drinking Teamoji’s Strawberry Cheese Foam drink. For people who’ve never heard of a cheese foam drink, how would you describe it?

Chang: I’ll give you a little background history on cheese foam. It actually started at a shop where a really famous Asian singer, Jay Chou, opened a shop or endorsed it. It’s called Machi Machi. They have this drink, and it was going crazy, like people were going crazy in Asia. We actually tasted it, and we were thinking about how we could bring this to the U.S. to our fellow students and to our Illini family. I usually tell customers that it’s a foamy cream cheese based topping, and it’s a little bit savory. With that description, people are usually more inclined to try it. We’re also planning on having a total upgrade on our cheese floats, so you might want to try it when it’s out. It’s made with soy milk, and it has an even better better smell inside. It’s also better for some mildly lactose intolerant people because we’re making it from soy milk and not milk. We’re still developing it, however, when we try it, it tastes absolutely amazing. I’m just so eager to bring it to the community.

617 E Green St.
M-Su 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Top image by Chantal Vaca.

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