Eat STL: Bo.Co
Illustration by Jordan Rossi
In many ways, food is more than just sustenance. It inspires conversations, holds cultural importance, and tells the chef’s story. Student Life Producer Emily Talkow presents Eat STL, a series that profiles chefs in the St. Louis community. In this episode, Talkow talks with Lily Clark of Bo.Co to explore how two sisters started a boba company.
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Lily Clark (0:00-0:39): My sister and I, here’s where like our business story starts, actually traveled to Taiwan back in like 2018, and that’s where we had boba tea for the first time. And we were like wowed by it. So we had it at the mall that it was actually invented at. And then when we came back to St. Louis, we were like, oh my gosh, we got on this boba kick. So we were like, we need to find a great place here that serves Boba tea. But of course, there was like nowhere selling it. There were some mom and pop shops that might have it on the menu, but it was so hard to just look it up online. It was kind of like a word of mouth thing. So we kind of were joking, like, we need to start our own Boba company.
Emily Talkow (0:41-1:02): Hi, I’m Emily Talkow and you’re listening to Eat St. Louis. That was Lily Clark, owner and founder of Bo.Co, a new boba company in St. Louis. I had the privilege of talking with Lily the other day and hearing her unconventional story of how she entered the food sphere. But before we begin, what even is boba? While selling her products at various farmers markets, people will often come up to Lily and ask
LC (1:02-1:28): what is boba tea? I usually tell them, first you have to tell them it’s a Taiwanese beverage, and then you kind of have to describe the experience. And you say there is these little tapioca pearls at the bottom that are almost like a gummy bear. It’s gonna be in like a milk tea base. So it’s sweet and creamy kind of like a latte. And then you kind of get that really fun different experience of chewing those little gummy pearls.
ET (1:28-1:32): I mentioned before that Lily had a bit of an unconventional start to boba industry.
LC (1:32-2:00): My bachelor’s degree is from Berkeley College in Music, and so it’s actually in music and songwriting. I kind of didn’t know what to do with that degree so when Covid happened, I decided maybe I should get a useful degree and do the master’s program at UMSL. Through that, there’s a lot of opportunity at UMSL to become part of the entrepreneur track. And that is a big thing that they push at UMSL because they’re very focused on like consumer packaged goods.
ET (2:00-2:04): But being an entrepreneur was also something that Lily dreamed about.
LC (2:04-2:26): I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the sweet life of Zach and Cody, where London goes shopping in her own closet essentially. When I was younger I was like, that would be so cool. And I was like, you know what would be really cool to have a business. I think that’s kind of when I decided, oh, I want to be a business owner at some point.
ET (2:26-2:31): However, prior to starting Bo.Co Lily had little to no cooking experience.
LC (2:31-3:13): I didn’t learn how to cook until probably got sent off to college and was like, oh crap, I can’t be eating Cheez-its and ramen all the time. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know the first thing about cooking. And they’re just like, well, it all starts in your kitchen. So really just go ahead and get a bunch of different ingredients and start like concocting things in your kitchen and see what works. So I probably spent like a full 80 hours, testing all types of recipes, mixing different things together, kind of just having my own food science k ickstarting course until I came up with like our three core recipes.
ET (3:13-3:19): With such little background in cooking, I wondered if there were any adversities that Lily had to overcome in the kitchen.
LC (3:19-4:15): I had a lot of problems with the food chemistry. Things like would separate really bad. The way that like there’s in citrus fruits, there’s like citrus so that will not go well with like a dairy kind of product. So they’ll separate. And a lot of the hardships in the beginning were figuring out these kinds of combinations and figuring out without a food or science background, things that I didn’t really know that I didn’t know. I think putting in the time to actually trying to learn some of those things was difficult. The discouragement when you first start with, I just failed like 20 times on this one recipe. I don’t think I’m ever gonna get it right. There’s gotta be a way for it to work, you know, cause other people are doing it as well. I think you kind of come to terms with some things that not everything has to be.
ET (4:15-4:22): Beyond the liquid component, I was also curious about the making of the tapioca balls, the little jelly like balls at the bottom of a boba drink.
LC (4:22-4:44): YouTube . I mean, the resource exists, so we learn a lot of things off the internet and YouTube. So the boba is actually made out of brown sugar and tapioca starch. You mix it together and you roll it into little balls. Then you have to let it sit and everything and process. But then you would cook it.
ET (4:44-4:53): Beyond the cooking aspect, there is a lot that goes into a business that we aren’t necessarily prepped to learn from school or even social media sources like Tik Tok.
LC (4:53-5:35): It’s a lot of things rhat you wouldn’t think you have to go through like the legal stuff, the part that no one really wants to talk about cause it’s not glamorous. You see like on TikTok, where people are like, oh, just start a drop shipping company. It’s so easy. You just have to put a website together But they never talk about the legal aspect of it. I think that’s a little bit different than like doing a project in school. A project in school it’s like, you know what? It’s fine. I’m not gonna be remembered for this project. Whereas like with a product, you know that there’s someone on the other side receiving that product and you’re trying to give them the best experience possible and you’re like, I don’t wanna ruin it and I don’t wanna ruin my brand’s reputation.
ET (5:35-5:45): One aspect to Bo.Co that I had no idea about before interviewing Lily was that before it was an edible drink, Bo.Co actually started as a candle company.
LC (5:45-6:13): What we actually ended up doing first was starting a candle business. It doesn’t make a ton of sense cause you’re kind of gonna 180 from it and you kind of know that. But it gave us a place to start and it kind of validated our business of, oh, people do like this concept. We can kind of tell our story along with it. Like we’re making these candles that look like boba tea, but we do hope to one day have like a boba company and that kind of gets people on board.
ET (6:13-6:20): Even though boba was originally a Taiwanese product, Lily and I talked about the ways Bo.Co has connected her to her roots.
LC (6:20-7:14): My sister and I are both Chinese actually. And we are adopted. So in terms of culture, cause I want to be like a little bit more sensitive about this, we are not super well versed or knowledgeable on Chinese culture. And part of this was kind of coming back to our roots and trying to get a little bit more involved in Chinese culture and trying to like be proud of it. A lot of people who are Asian will come up to us and they’ll connect to us through it.They’ll try to teach us more about Chinese culture or they’ll say, hey, have you gone to this festival? Or, hey, have you read this book? Or have you checked out this, um, like whatever in Chinese pop culture scene? We’re like, no, we haven’t, but this is fantastic. We definitely will.
ET (7:14-7:19): For anyone who was listening to this episode and is now craving boba, here are some details on where you can find Lily.
LC (7:19-7:38): we have moved over to Urban Eats Kitchen, which is in Dutchtown. And I believe you’ll be able to buy our products online from there. We are at the Soulard Farmers Market. We will be at the Boulevard Market in Richmond Heights, and we might be at the Kirkwood Farmers Market.
ET (7:38-7:42): In the long term, Lily and her sister hope to enter the manufacturing space.
LC (7:42-8:01): All of the boba manufacturers are pretty much in Taiwan, in other parts of Asia, in the US, on the coast, but no one’s really in the midwest right now. So we would really love to kind of fill in that gap and become like the boba manufacturers of the midwest.
ET (8:05-8:26): Thank you so much to Lily Clark for taking the time to talk with me. Be sure to follow Bo.Co on instagram @shopbo.co, check out their website and go try some boba! Stay tuned for future episodes of Eat St. Louis. In the meantime, head to studlife.com to check out our current issue and other recent stories. For Student Life Media, I’m Emily Talkow.
Music rights reserved for Kevin MacLeod