Waco Cha strives for representation, communi-tea

Two years since its founding, the shop has grown to be a place where everyone is welcome. Christina Cannady | Photographer

By Jake Reidland | Contributor

Culture is represented in many different ways. Some present culture with song and dance or clothes and customs. Devin Li and his wife Jaja Chen are helping Waco’s Asian American community be represented with their boba tea shop, Waco Cha.

“I saw an Asian market that was unrepresented in the Waco community,” Li said. “Food means a lot to culture. There were no authentic markets in the area, or even a good place to find boba tea.”

The city of Waco has a population that is 2.2% Asian American, according to the United States Census, while Asian and Asian-American students make up 6% of the Baylor University undergraduate population.

Li and his Taiwanese American wife, Jaja Chen, have lived in Waco since 2014. They created Waco Cha in 2018 with the goal to represent Asian culture in the Waco community. Li said their downtown storefront has allowed them to build on this goal and create a culturally diverse and welcoming environment for the Waco community to gather.

Galaxy Lemonade with Boba at Waco Cha. Christina Cannady | Photographer
Galaxy Lemonade with Boba at Waco Cha. Christina Cannady | Photographer

Li’s father decided to move the family to Houston from China when he was 13 years old, to escape from tyranny and further his career in medical research, said Li.

When Li was a senior in high school, he became a Christian. This made Baylor a more attractive destination for him to attend college. He thought Baylor would be a good place to grow his faith, and he would try it out for a year and see if he liked it.

Li said when he got to Baylor, he soon became involved with the Asian American ministry on campus. He soon began to find himself busy with other things on campus like All-University Sing, intramurals, and of course, his engineering classes. Four years later, he graduated with his degree and moved to Houston to start an engineering job.

Soon after moving to Houston, Li met his now wife and the two began dating long distance. In 2014, they married and Li moved to Waco.

Li said he lost his job soon after moving to Waco. He began teaching an engineering class at University High School. Chen, his wife, works as a social worker in the Waco area. Chen’s work led the family to often participate in community events. Li brought these experiences with him to the classroom where he would tell his students about them.

“I was surprised that my students weren’t aware of a lot of things going on in the Waco community,” Li said. “They also said that they didn’t feel welcomed in some of the areas that local businesses were located. They felt that they weren’t racially represented.”

Exterior of Waco Cha, a local Boba tea shop. Christina Cannady | Photographer
Exterior of Waco Cha, a local Boba tea shop. Christina Cannady | Photographer

Li said hearing this from his Hispanic students and the lack of representation of Asian culture in the Waco are what led to the birth of Waco Cha. Li and his wife set out to create a business that focused on community diversity. They hoped that this would make a more welcoming place for people in the Waco area.

“My entrepreneurial spirit was also calling me to create my own business,” Li said. “I also saw how downtown was booming and thought it was a great opportunity.”

Waco Cha’s first location was a stand at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market on Saturdays in 2018. Only a year later, Waco Cha had an established what he felt was a well-run team and a recently-purchased food truck. This allowed them to host their own community events like board game and dumpling nights, Li said.

“We have a diverse team that we take value in,” said Waco Cha cha-rista Hunter Lim. “We all grow from working with people from different backgrounds.”

Today, Waco Cha has their own storefront downtown on Franklin Avenue. The store strives to be a welcoming place for all people to gather and take part in Asian culture by enjoying boba tea.

“We create a space where people feel at home,” Lim said. “We encourage them to come in with friendly people and board games. Then provide them with great customer service.”

The Hispanic community has grown to make up 30-40% of Waco Cha’s customer base. This shows that Waco Cha is creating the type of environment that they wanted to achieve when they started back in 2018, according to Li.

In the future, Li said that he would like to continue to the Waco Cha community around Waco and expand to other areas in Texas. He hopes to continue to spread these welcoming and culturally diverse stores across Texas.

“I want to expand to eventually owning 10 shops in Texas,” Li said.