Tou & Mai brings bubble tea and other drinkable desserts to Detroit

Thinking big (in a small shop)

A drink that originated in Taiwan has made its way to Detroit.

Before Tou & Mai opened in Midtown last week, the closest specialty bubble tea shop was in Ferndale (though nearby Shangri-La has the item on its menu). Now Detroiters have more ways to enjoy the Asian treat, which features large pearls of tapioca slurped through an oversize straw. And there's more to the new store than colorful drinks — Tou & Mai doubles as an Asian mini-mart.

Gowhnou and Cedric Lee, owners of next-door Go! Sy Thai, say they had the idea for about a year. The couple (ages 31 and 36, respectively) have been married for almost 10 years, and say when they lived in Detroit they wished they had a place like this to shop.

"Because we used to live down here, we know how hard it is to get the basic necessities that we'd have to go to the suburbs for," Cedric says. "We wanted to do something to complement something we're already doing by specializing in a dessert."

Tou & Mai's bubble tea comes in regular, milk tea, or smoothie options. Their specialty shaved ice desserts include their own version of Halo Halo (renamed "Hello Hello") and Tricolour Tapioca, a desert made of pandan-flavored tapioca strings, mini tapioca pearls, ruby chestnuts, and coconut milk. Customers can customize almost any drink, and there are gluten-free and vegan options. In addition, the shop also sells lattés, available as ice, frozen, or hot.

The couple embraces their Hmong culture. Traditionally, Hmong people live in isolated highlands of southeast Asia. They were heavily recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War to assist the United States in their fight against communism.

Fearing persecution, many Hmong people migrated to the U.S. after the war. Cedric says while they migrated, the Hmong people picked up different specialties of other cultures and included a mix into their own heritage. In the shop, one can find Japanese and Korean candies along with tofu, apparel, gifts, kitchenware, and more.

"Although our store specializes in boba tea, the establishment is highly influenced by our culture and heritage," he says. "You can see it in the interior decor, (the) name of the establishment, and products on the shelves, such as vintage Hmong embroidered wallets and purses."

"Tou" and "Mai" are very common names for a Hmong male and female. "This shop is dedicated to them," Gowhnou says. "For every Hmong boy and girl who simply has the chance and opportunity to be who they are — to be Hmong."

The traditional boba are tapioca pearls. Tou & Mai also carry "litchi jellie," "mango popping boba," "grass jellie," and "basil seed" flavors.

When they opened Go! Sy Thai in 2013, they already had an established brand with guidelines to follow, and are currently opening a second location in Capital Park. But with Tou & Mai, they saw it as an opportunity to have a clean slate.

"It was an opportunity to introduce our culture and heritage, which was well-needed since we lack diversity in Detroit and in Cass Corridor," Cedric says.

"We own a Thai restaurant and we wanted to embrace our Hmong culture. I call it a mini-mart because we're a small shop, but with a big thought," Gowhnou says.

Tou & Mai Boba Tea and Mini Mart is located 4240 Cass Ave., Detroit next to Go! Sy Thai;

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