Hey Tea is a Guangdong-based milk tea chain making headlines and long lines. Images of the shops’ storefronts went viral for their consistently winding queues, filled with customers willing to wait hours for their zhishi jinfeng chawang (cheese-topped tea).
The first Hey Tea opened in Jiangmen, Guangdong, a wee village of 4 million, before the chain moved northward. Its first location in Shanghai spawned knockoffs across the city, including a ‘Hi Tea’ and a ‘Hey Juice.’ It was even rumored online that one savvy Shanghairen waited in line all day, every day to buy and resell Hey Tea at a markup – and made RMB50,000 in one month.
Alas, this good fortune does not await us. The capital’s first branch of Hey Tea debuted in Taikoo Li South last month, and as expected, lines snaked around the building. But wait – there’s controversy. Some say Hey Tea pays people to wait in line and drum up buzz, and that this is all an elaborate publicity stunt. Others say its tea is substandard, and that it’s a boring, run-of-the-mill tea place from Guangdong that had a clever rebrand.
There is only one way to find out.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, not even a weekend. But the line is as long as a Disneyland ride’s on a Saturday. We were expecting a 30-minute wait. A staffer tells us we’re in for two hours. We have underestimated Hey Tea.
We see no evidence of paid line-waiters – everyone we speak to appears to be trying it out for the first time.
“We decided to stop by because we saw that people are obsessed with Hey Tea on Weibo, and we were curious,” says the girl just ahead of us, waiting in line with her friend. “We didn’t really have anything else in mind for our meet-up, so, yeah…”
They give up 30 minutes later.
The line moves slowly – it truly is a two-hour wait. Crowds are messy and frustrated. But the staff is incredibly patient, informing customers of wait times and explaining the best way to drink the teas (use a straw to open the cap’s flap and swig both layers – the cheesy top and the tea – simultaneously). To our astonishment, we see that some customers, upon receiving their teas, get right back in line for another round. That means being in line for three to four hours altogether.
This is because Hey Tea follows a strict code. One cannot purchase more than three drinks per order. One must select from a detailed list of milk tea characteristcs: added sugar or no added sugar, ice or no ice, cheese foam or no cheese foam. Hey Tea staffers are quick to share what they believe to be the ideal formula: 50-percent ice and no sugar, definitely cheese foam.
A fleeting moment of reprieve comes halfway through the wait, in the form of a bench. We sit for a few minutes, before the line slogs onward and it is someone else’s turn. We recommend wearing sneakers. Ideally, you’d also bring a friend, or someone you can talk to. Very few people come alone.
At the front of the line, hangers-on ask if anyone is ordering fewer than three drinks, and offer to pay to get in on others’ orders. Almost everyone orders three drinks. They don’t ask us, though. Weird.
Take a big gulp. The cheese on top is so sweet and creamy (no need to add sugar) that it’s best with the tea, not as a mush at the bottom.
Altogether, it’s surprisingly filling – and most of all, rewarding. After two hours of waiting, it tastes heavenly. Even the cute logo tickles us: a tiny cartoon man having a cuppa, totally unfazed by this whole circus. And the RMB20-30 price tag for drinks is cheaper than Starbucks. Not bad.
Maybe we’re delirious after waiting so long, but we’re tempted to say this was all worth the mafan. (Seriously though, bring comfortable shoes.)
There’s a Hey Tea rival in town. Enter Yidiandian.
Yidiandian feels like a low-rent version of Hey Tea. Literally – its Beijing locations are tucked away in forlorn corners of retail spaces that have seen better days. We visit the one in Shangdu SOHO. (Yes, we’re knocking Shangdu SOHO.)
Yidiandian’s line looks paltry in comparison to Hey Tea’s. Twenty people? Pshh. And yet again, we underestimate. What looks like morning-rush-at-Starbucks ends up costing us 45 minutes. What with its slow-moving line and the store’s blaring hip-hop soundtrack, we feel like we’re waiting for coatcheck at some brightly-lit nightclub. In Shangdu SOHO. A building which, we repeat, sucks.
But here’s the good part: Yidiandian’s teas are dirt cheap. We grab our basic lemon variety for RMB6. (We were going to try something more exciting, but that’s all the cash we had, and Yidiandian doesn’t take WeChat. Who doesn’t take WeChat?)
Our tea, albeit basic, is undeniably delicious. And at RMB6, it’s practically free – just with the soul-crushing additional cost of spending the entirety of our lunch break in line.
We later found out they had delivery the whole time.
Additional reporting by Jocelyn Richards