Bubble tea shop balances reopening as students leave campus

After being closed for six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, co-owners Lucy Gao and Mark Wu struggle to regain lost business.

Senior finance major Sarah Zhang (right) finishes taking down a customer’s order at Mr. Wish on Sept. 30. | ISAAC SCHEIN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The stacked chairs and slow stretches of customers are a far cry from what the North Philadelphia bubble tea shop Mr. Wish used to be, employee Kevin Zheng said.  

Students would come in, drink tea and do homework, but now with decreased business, he is often standing around with nothing to do, Zheng added.

With a customer base of primarily Temple University students, Mr. Wish, a bubble tea franchise store on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 15th Street, has experienced a slow first few weeks of business, said Lucy Gao, co-owner of the shop. 

The restaurant reopened for business on Aug. 24 after shutting down on March 9 because of the COVID-19 pandemic concerns. 

While Temple reopened for some in-person classes in late August, the university moved all non-essential classes online for the rest of the semester on Sept. 3 after reporting more than 200 COVID-19 cases among students and employees. Students were encouraged to move home by the city health department, and about one-third of students who originally moved on campus remain in residence halls, The Temple News reported. 

During the five months they were closed, Gao and her husband, Mark Wu, co-owner of Mr. Wish, claimed unemployment and received the stimulus check from the federal government. They applied for a federal small business grant, but have yet to receive any sort of payment, she said.

“With the grant, of course it would be a huge help because it helps us, I guess, with what we lost during the shutdown,” Gao added.

Though Mr. Wish is a franchise, each location operates as an independent business, Gao said. 

The lack of customers presents other problems for them as franchise owners because they cannot raise product prices, making it difficult for them to have a profitable margin if expenses increase, Gao said. 

“Everything is expensive right now, like for example, simple gloves,” Gao said. “We use them more often now because of COVID, but the price is raised almost triple.”

Mr. Wish is releasing new products and promotions to try and attract more business, Gao said. 

During the first week Mr. Wish reopened, business exceeded their expectations, but the sales did not last for long. As classes moved online and students moved home, there was a significant decrease in the amount of customers, Gao said. 

“Even though it seems like we get a lot of business and it’s busy and stuff, with the opening, I don’t see a lot of business,” she added. 

Mr. Wish, located on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, is a popular spot for bubble tea in North Central Philadelphia. | ISAAC SCHEIN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Business is unlikely to improve Gao said, as winter is their slowest time. The shop is usually closed for Temple’s winter break in December and January, but they may close earlier this year, she added.

“Honestly, every small business owner at this moment is losing money, so it’s not only us,” Gao said.

The restaurant made adjustments for COVID-19 regulations by instituting two at a time customer policy, takeout only ordering and adjusted hours because students usually come to the shop at night, Gao said. 

The shop is open 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is closed on Sundays, a change from last year when they were operated 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.

Zheng, a 2018 finance and agricultural science alumnus and employee of Mr. Wish for almost two years, said the restaurant feels “empty.” 

“With all the freshmen basically going home, it’s been really tough,” Zheng added. 

Emily Gunkel, a junior environmental science major, went to Mr. Wish with her friends a few times before the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. 

“We’d usually just lounge in the seating area past the counter and that’s usually where some other people would be hanging out too and doing their schoolwork,” Gunkel added. 

Gunkle has only been to the store once since its reopening, and would visit more if it was open for people to sit inside and hang out, she said. 

Since Mr. Wish’s reopening, Gao has received support from her local gardening club, which have been helping her promote the store’s reopening. 

“There is still some people out there trying to support small business,” Gao said.

Due to the shutdown and the new reduced hours, Gao has gained more free time, she said.

“We try to think as a more positive way, so we have more time to spend with family members, which is great,” Gao said. “I have a kid, I get to spend more time with her.”

Gao sympathizes with other small business owners in similar situations. 

“Everything is not as good as what we thought,” Gao said.

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