SPOTLIGHT: TEDDY ZOU AND BOBA BEAR

This October, Social Smoke is all about our personal and business friend Teddy Zou, and his uniquely dynamic hookah lounge, Boba Bear. Over the years Social Smoke has become acquainted with many kinds of hookah lounge businesses in our efforts to advertise, distribute and market our brand. Few have crossed the threshhold of business to personal friend.

So we are proud to introduce our spotlight series by getting to know the enigmatic man who has helped to uplift the image of the ‘hookah lounge’ in the States and in Asia by creating a place where young professionals could meet, relax and enjoy smoking in a classy, yet laid back venue. A personal friend who has become a distributing partner for our brand in Asia, Teddy Zou’s energetic personality, dynamic business sense, and unique perspective on the future of hookah culture has made him invaluable to the success of both Social Smoke and Boba Bear.

Boba Bear started off as a boba tea lounge and a place where many of Teddy’s friends and colleagues from college could meet up and hang out. It quickly morphed into an upscale hookah lounge after
Teddy realised that he had the perfect venue to introduce hookah blends and hookah culture to rising professionals in the Los Angeles area. Quickly becoming a hit, with four locations in California and four international venues in Hong Kong and South Korea, Boba Bear, with its classy interior, unique
mix of drinks, and a laid back atmosphere that carries a demand for professionalism, is changing the rules of what a hookah lounge is meant to be.

So let’s take a moment and get to know the man behind the concept, Teddy Zou.

Portrait of Teddy Zou

Portrait of Teddy Zou

Who is Teddy Zou in a nutshell?

I was a Chinese immigrant to the US at the age of eleven. Coming from a long line of great entrepreneurs, I always knew that I would establish a business of my own. I didn’t know what path to take to achieve that until I graduated with a Bachelors of Economics from Occidental College. Right after graduating, I realised that I wanted to hold on to the close friends that I had made, but with everyone taking a different path towards their respective careers, it seemed almost impossible. And that’s how Boba Bear was born. I created a venue for my friends to come, relax and enjoy each other’s company. The growth of the business, and its unique change from just a ‘hangout’ place to an upscale, successful hookah bar has completely powered through all my expectations and dreams for what I could accomplish as an entrepreneur.

When and how did you get exposed to the hookah culture and business?

Right after I opened Boba Bear as a boba tea lounge, a friend suggested that I had the perfect space for a hookah lounge. Having only been recently exposed to hookah smoking, I was really enthusiastic about trying it. I did a lot of research and shopped around for the best brands of shisha,
best equipment, and most updated technology. It was this drive to find and serve the best that morphed our brand from a boba shop to a hookah lounge. Soon our customers started identifying our brand as a hookah lounge, and everything took off from there.

Why do you think you have had so much success in an industry that is typically dominated by Middle Easterners?

I think it’s mostly due to our demographic. We draw a more diverse and even novice crowd to the typical hookah lounge. Boba Bear is the
perfect place for anyone new to the world of hookah to get introduced to quality brands and exceptional technique. We strive for perfection when packing a bowl and presenting our hookahs, and I believe that it’s that commitment to excellence that has helped me break through the glass ceiling as a non Middle East owner owner of a hookah lounge.

What kind of changes do you see coming to the industry?

I  think the next decade will bring a lot of changes to the tobacco industry as a whole. California and New York have passed legislation to change the smoking age from 18 to 21. And with other States sure to follow suit, many existing lounges will have to change, enhance, and grow to their business models to attract and keep an older demographic while adapting to the ever changing tobacco regulations. That alone changes the game.

As for the FDA changes, I believe, they will create, an oligopoly in the US market by making the barrier to entry so high, and almost completely annihilating competition. I hope the existing brands will still continue to uphold high standards of quality for their products and continue to innovate, or we are going to see a decline in the market.

What’s next for the Boba brand?

I believe that Asia is the new frontier for hookah culture. So we are focusing a lot of our money and efforts into our expansion of Asia. For the most part, Asia’s hookah scene is about 20 years behind. We want to be the first lounge brand to change people’s perception about hookah. We want people to not just perceive hookah as just a pretty looking apparatus that is for show, but also to enjoy the actual process of smoking it.

What made you pick Hong Kong as your first international location for Boba Bear?

Mostly opportunity. I’m very whimsical when it comes to business decisions. I was invited by a regular to go check out Hong Kong with a promise of a space. When I arrived and saw the venue, it was way too small. So I googled agents, checked out some real estate, and ended up signing a lease before coming back that week. When I was on the plane, it hit me that I had just committed to paying a monthly lease that was five times more than I was paying in LA. I did freak out inside a little at first, but then realized that I just had to do whatever it takes to make it work now or it’s going to put the entire operation in jeopardy.  Thankfully, that regular became my partner in Hong Kong and was very helpful and resourceful in setting up the operation there. We opened our second bar in 2015 and are now expanding to do more wholesale, catering, and consulting in HK.

Hong Kong along with Tokyo, Japan, and Seoul, South Korea are known as the trendsetters of Asia. But concepts also fizzle quickly, what is your plan to keep Boba Bear current and exciting?

I’ve learned that in order to keep any business afloat in Asia, customer service has to be your most vital and important priority.
Advertising there is best through word of mouth, so our customers become our most important family members. We make it a point to learn their names, find out about their careers and family, remember their favourite drinks and shisha blends and overall create an atmosphere where the feel like they are coming home. I believe that creating that kind of expectation cements a business in people’s minds and hearts pretty much anywhere.

Teddy and Boba Bear Staff working with Social Smoke at the 2016 TPE Show in Las Vegas

Teddy and Boba Bear Staff working with Social Smoke at the 2016 TPE Show in Las Vegas

Favourite Social Smoke blend and why?

Absolute Zero and Pink Lemonade. It’s a very refreshing mix.

You just recently married. What was it about your wife that drew you?

It’s kinda funny because I was instantly attracted to her. After going out a few times, and struggling to communicate in English, which was her third language, I started to think that the language barrier was going to stall anything deeper between us despite the attraction. But there was something about her that had me hooked so I was determined to get to know her better. That’s when I discovered, by chance, that she spoke Mandarin, which is my first language. Something I still can’t believe I didn’t know from our first meeting! But it was through Mandarin that I discovered what an incredible woman I had found. She understood and could bridge the American and Chinese culture, which was incredibly important to me because I was deeply rooted in both. Once language was no longer an issue, it’s amazing to me how quickly and deeply I fell in love.

Well there you have it, the enigmatic entrepreneur: Teddy Zou!

If you want to know more about Boba Bear check out their website at http://www.bobabear.com/. And if you have any questions for Teddy, comment below or email him directly at info@bobabear.com.