Boba Guys Mission location. Photo by Yujie Zhou. Taken Oct. 19, 2022

Anyone looking for a cup of milk tea to quell the heat at Boba Guys on Wednesday would be disappointed. It’s closed, with no scheduled reopening.

The closure came on the heels of an escalating conflict between the Mission store’s employees and the company’s management. On Tuesday, two workers said they were fired for being caught on tape insulting the company’s founder during an in-store chat. The recording was made without their consent. On Wednesday, some 13 of the store’s 15 employees found they could no longer access the company’s internal communication tools and their accounts were deactivated.

Although management did not respond to multiple messages from Mission Local, Boba Guys leadership announced in an email to workers that “The Mission location is temporarily closed until we are able to staff a full team to uphold our standards.”

Although it may sound untenable to fire an employee for a conversation, it is, in fact, legal. “They’re at-will employees, so a boss can fire them for any reason, that’s not unlawful,” said Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “Unless it was illegally recorded, termination itself was likely legal.”

As the founding store of Boba Guys, a bubble milk tea brand that owns two dozen locations nationwide, the Mission store at 19th and Valencia streets used to be packed with customers. But in July, the location started bleeding money, employees were told by management. Soon after, in early August, the company suddenly informed workers that their hours would be drastically reduced, employees said. 

Several bobaristas (the name for Boba Guys’ entry-level position) who used to work nearly 25 hours a week were given only nine hours, according to Madeline Urso, who was fired on Tuesday. At an hourly rate of $17.52, they found it next to impossible to make ends meet.

Also reduced was the time allotted to open and close the store. Given that boba takes 50 minutes to be fully cooked and must be prepared in advance, the store had no boba to offer for the first 30 minutes of opening, Mission store employee Zander Moreno said.

Urso proposed a strike, but there was little response from her co-workers. A Sunday meeting between the store’s workers and management became a watershed moment, employees said, with the workers calling for increased hours. The management refused, workers said.

Workers said they were enraged by what they perceived to be the arrogance of one of the two founders, Andrew Chau, who attended the meeting by video chat. “He said if Boba Guys closes, he can lose everything. That it’s not just us that are going to lose things, that he will also be losing everything,” recalled Moreno. Several other workers confirmed Chau’s statement. 

On Monday, the anger inside the Mission cafe built. On the store’s internal Slack, Urso sent out several links to government websites that provide information about unemployment and unionizing. That same day, she explicitly insulted Chau in a conversation with Skylar, then the assistant manager of the store.

The hand-scrawled dismissal notice stated that Urso “Conducted conversation with coworkers that was inappropriate, disparaging and in violation of Boba Guys Team Member Handbook policy” including a reference to another employee at the meeting “touching himself underneath the camera.”  The notice also alleges that Urso said the CEO could “eat shit.”

The allegations were sourced to a conversation recorded by security cameras – a recording that was made without the workers’ knowledge, according to the workers.

“Our anger comes from the indignity of being forced to listen to this man flaunt his wealth while telling us that we will have to compete with each other for the meager scraps he’s going to throw at us,” Urso wrote in a text message to Mission Local. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Boba Guys’ human resources director arrived at the store and handed Urso a “Discipline Notice” and terminated her for “Sexual Harassment” and “violation of Boba Guys Team Member Handbook policy” (“conducted conversation with coworkers that was inappropriate, disparaging,” as stated in the notice).

In the verbal exchange with the HR director, she mentioned that Monday’s in-store conversation was recorded. Soon after, the director also fired Skylar.

To protest the dismissals, workers closed the store two hours early. Two police officers were summoned to the store by HR to supervise the departure of the workers.

Multiple emails by Mission Local to reach Boba Guys’ founders, the human resources director and other members of management have gone unanswered. An email Mission store workers received around 9 p.m. on Wednesday stated: “It is our policy to treat all personnel matters confidentially and comprehensively. Therefore, we are unable to provide further detail at this time.” 

Urso feels she may have been targeted by the company in retaliation for the Monday conversation. “The kind of language used (in the recording) was in no way uncommon or out of place at the store, so it feels difficult for me, and maybe too generous, to separate that from my having posted unionizing literature not 24 hours before.” 

The workers sparked a frenzy of messages on Instagram and Twitter. On Wednesday, workers from a Boba Guy store outside of San Francisco approached Urso and said they were also trying to unionize and wanted to cooperate in some way.

Moreno, a shift lead at the Mission store, found that unsurprising. “Definitely. Yes. They have not only treated our branch like this, but also other branches,” said Moreno, who put up signs protesting management on the store’s glass façade on Tuesday. Moreno said upper management quickly took the signs down.

He’s not sure whether he still has a job with Boba Guys, but his access to the Boba Guys Slack has been deactivated. 

Xiaojun Zhou, a two-year bobarista at Boba Guys, submitted her resignation letter to the company Tuesday night. “Andrew was very unsympathetic, very uncaring that doing this threatens our livelihoods, and doing this with no warning was very detrimental,” she said.

Ashley Osorio Paredes, who has worked as a bobarista at the store for a year, said that when Human Resources Director Marisa Bowman-Frye came in and instructed all the workers to leave last night, the manager prevented Osorio Paredes from getting her tips.  “I even tried to get my own earned tips, but Marisa stopped me, telling me the store is closed and that they’ll be in contact with me soon, and shut the door on me,” she said.

It may be a while, however, before Mission residents can drink their boba tea again. “To my knowledge, nobody, or almost nobody, that was working is willing to come in to continue running the store,” said Urso.

Two police officers were summoned to the store by HR to supervise the departure of the workers.

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Not the first time Andrew Chau has been a piece of shit. Remember his “All Lives Matter” drink in response to George Floyd’s death and BLM?

  2. Well, the owner probably is totally out-of-touch, at best. That said, best practice is to always assume management/HR/your boss can hear anything you talk to your coworkers about while you’re at work, even if that’s not usually the case. It’s no secret that almost every business in this city has cameras on the interior and usually also the exterior of their building..so it’s extremely hard to believe these workers didn’t know they were on camera … If they simply *assumed* there was no audio, well, that’s their mistake.

    But more importantly, someone should remind these people that “you can only control yourself”. The excuse “everyone does it” (or in this case that the “language used was in no way…out of place at the store”) really only works if we assume the person using that excuse literally lacks any ability to make their own choices whatsoever.

    Bottom line: YOU decide if you want to carry yourself in a professional way, or not. Clearly the workers who made those statements did not. Unfortunately for them, conducting yourself in that way is probably the LEAST effective way to deal with a shi*** employer, or person in general. You’re always better off “keeping your side of the street clean” imo.

    1. Hey Cat,
      You know it’s still illegal to record without consent tho right??? I’m not just going to assume they had a camera that records audio as well when they took soooo long just to buy an AC for us during the heat wave. You clearly haven’t read a lot of articles if you’re only focusing specifically on being recorded. That’s not the only reason we’re doing this union. We are professional by the way, but during work, we’re allowed to have our own personal discussions without being recorded. But good to know you’re on the side of a racist owner and don’t support unions

  3. No need to reopen , because concerned citizens will not support a business that does this Evesdrops then locks up? Chicken poop thing to do. It’s fine bubba ,we’ll get over it .But will you ?

    1. The police are generally directed to protect wealth and power. At least they saw the absurdity of this request and left.

    2. If you are a techie bro such as the CEO Andrew Chau then the police will take the call asap. Sorry but in SF money talks.

  4. Boycott this place…they are so anti employee…cop excort out the building.? Really? ..the day i couldnt get my tips would be my last ..oh and i would of got my tips….ill spread the word..

  5. Yo where these owners attending business seminara at? I say this cos one spot I was working at. After they fired one guy and a lady they went on about talking in an employee meeting about how this a work place and we should not hold feelings for the two that got fired cos we’re not suppose to consider co workers friends. I was like wtf this can’t be real. When did I start working for a cult? They told us this so we didn’t try to retaliate in some manner cause they were fired for little things. The guys replacements like 5 replacements within a month did not even work out to top it off. We in the kitchen just wasting time training people who didn’t like the vibe of the owner. Till this day I can go online and find job listings for that job because the turn over rate is so high at the business. People will say well employees, no its not the employees. When it’s working everything is fine, but as soon as the boss/owner gets hurt or doesn’t like something. people just get fired. It didn’t even have anything to do with job performance. It’s just that the owner to sensitive or something and can’t handle real criticism about his business from his employees.
    Food industry deserves better because food is important part of life and mistreatment of food industry worker abuse has gone on to long in the USA. Food industry is not just a beginner job because you wouldn’t want a new guy cook your 50 dollar steak vs a guy who knows how to actually cook a steak.

  6. The beauty of America is in plain sight for all to see.
    Move on to another employer if ya don’t like the one your with. If the pay is not worthy, move on again.
    Nobody owes you anything but payment for what you signed on to, and the hours you worked.
    Have respect for yourself in the real world. It works out much, much better in the long run.

    1. But they do have the right to be stressed and talk about it amongst themselves. The upper management has EGO issues.

  7. Boycott Boba Guys! Don’t sweat it because there are tons of other Boba places out there. Employers that don’t treat their employees right don’t deserve to be in business!

  8. Geez… at least let them collect their tip, they earned it. End it thoughtfully and gracefully.
    If the business is suffering financial problems then fire those that are under performing, it sucks, but it has to be done.

    If the upper management is screwing up, then they’ve got to go as well.

  9. That sugar water they sell is complete garbage. It’s literally C&H sugar and starch . It’s absolutely horrible for you.

  10. I always trash my boss at work and nothing happens. Our laws here are not that crap and they can’t fire you for insulting the top brass.
    Nexxxxxt……

    1. Of course they can and do all the time. Best to keep a civil tongue in your head before you too get the ax.

  11. Welcome to the real world gen z. It’s harsh out here much different from playing Minecraft and Roblox at mommy and daddies house isn’t it?

  12. @Allison, 150k to pour milk in a cup? Sure you aren’t one of the Boba Guys owners? So much disdain and disrespect in that statement. How does $17.50 an hour translate to 150k annually? It doesn’t. How do workers survive on 25 hours a week even at whatever wage let alone 9 hours? If they are teenagers working for pocket change I guess that would pencil out. But there are risks with working. Repetitive strain injuries, Covid, very frightening encounters with thieves and it can be a really fast paced stressful environment I’m sure. It’s also not so easy for people to start their own businesses. Nearly everyone in the podcast “how I made” it got loans from friends and family. This is not accessible for huge #’s of people. Again there is a lack of empathy and consideration appearing here whatever the coarseness of the employees may have been. That class divide can be unbearable for expected to be subservient employees.

  13. This mindset is exactly why some people never get ahead while others become successful. It’s a job, not a social club. They are free to open their own business if they believe they can do it better.

  14. Lotta corpo bootlickers in these comments. Must feel good, to be so craven to the interests of power and money. Like a dog. Head empty, no thoughts, only wag tail for the master and growl at trespassers.

  15. LMAO

    When progressive liberals vote for the administration and policies that put you in the worst position imaginable lol

    Delicious tears lol

  16. Since I have exquisite Assam tea delivered from Harrods in London, I won’t miss the sugary boba stuff.

  17. Entitled whiny children. Are they so unsophisticated that they don’t understand at-will employment? If they don’t like their terms of employment, go work elsewhere. Better yet, go start their own boba shop and encourage their employees to trash them while paying them $150,000 a year to pour some milk in a cup. Sounds like their best option in life.

    1. OK Boomer. The greedy, unsympathetic generation that owns all the wealth and shits on every other generation at the same time. As irrelevance and mortality rapidly descends upon your destructive generation, we will shed no tears when you’re gone.

      1. 🎻🎻🎻🎻🎻

        love how you genz people are such ageist while having 0 experience to back up stuff you guys say ..lol

        yall want the same pay as people who been bustin their hump longer while having not done a quarter of the work.

        signed Millinials

    2. @Alison: It’s polite to read the article before commenting. The hourly rate is $17.52. None of these workers are being paid anything remotely like $150,000 a year.

      (The union-busting HR person, now – she might be. Also the owners.)

    3. Where did you get $150k…? At the rate listed above, at best, if they get 40 h/wk, one there would earn gross about $36,650.

    4. If they’re paid $17.52 an hour and used to work 25 hours per week, they would only make $22.776 per year, not $150,000. Please use your brain, Alison. Honestly, it’s embarrassing.

    5. I agree with everything you say but Am I missing something? @ $17.25 / hour you would ever get even close to 1/2 of 150k per year, even working overtime and holidays…..

  18. The employee who wrote the note saying they were recorded “illegally” is mistaken. There can be expectations of privacy in public (Katz v US), but this wouldn’t qualify. Plus, the conversation was likely captured via an obvious device that employees mistakenly thought was video only. They’ve probably been on tape since day one.

  19. Ask why management is so afraid of the “U” word, for just this reason. They are getting rich off workers and gouging customers. Then this happens amazingly after organizing talk starts over reduced work hours. TYPICAL Union busting, close the store, screw your workers, screw your customers. Go rehire , part-time workers desperate for ANY work used to be the policy for companies like this, but we will have to wait and see. Treating your Team like Family is what a UNION is for. Strength in what is right in the long run.

    1. It sounds as though the owners were losing money lately. Why risk opening a business unless it produces wealth for you? It’s not a complicated concept.

  20. Everyone’s memory seems to be short, but back in 2020 (at the start of the still-ongoing pandemic) Boba Guys were called out for their racism and harassment: https://www.sfchronicle.com/restaurants/article/Boba-Guys-workers-allege-pattern-of-racial-15370042.php

    But people still kept going… just like they keep going to Hot Cookie in The Castro, which was called out for the same behaviour that same year: https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/Popular-Castro-bakery-Hot-Cookie-in-hot-water-15430090.php

    And longtime Mission Local readers should remember their infamous Borderlands Books exposé.

    If you can’t treat your own workers right, failure is on your head. “…you have nothing to lose but your chains.” ✊🏿

  21. I dont understand why there’s any issue with the result given the circumstances, recorded or not, if management catches wind that you openly insulted/disparaged any other employee within the company they have every right to fire you even without video evidence. At-will employment means you can be fired for literally anything, had they only talked of unionization while still working and maintaining the status quo then maybe you could make the argument that this could have been retalliation firing, but instead they lost their cool and made it a slam dunk for management. They had a minimum wage job that can and will quite literally in this case be filled with replacement bobaristas in relativelyshort order, its not a specialized occupation or at least not one that requires a degree program or extensive training to do so the employees had almost zero leverage to make demands or openly verbally attack anyone within the company without risk of termination. Sure, management will lose out $$ while the store is closed but leaving even a few disgruntled workers in the mix can spoil the sentiment in the next batch, clean sweep seems like the most effective method.

  22. I don’t feel too badly for either side on this one. This is the company that had the audacity to do a Gofundme campaign to get their customers to donate money so they could open another store. I pretty much lost respect for the company (and its gullible customers) when that happened, years ago. Also their tea is not good, they are among the worst of the boba chains out there.

    But any employee that would talk like that while on the job should not be surprised to be fired. You want your job, you need to follow the rules, like it or not. The good news is that these are basically unskilled jobs, and there are plenty of other companies hiring.

  23. seems like the workers were retaliating against the shop, with the charge being led by urso. churlish. her lame statement about how that’s how they always speak at work is telling. she’s done and she knows it.

    and then as a cover, she and others who felt that her termination was unfair suddenly decided to push to unionize a medium sized business that probably has fairly thin margins as-is? oh, please. it ain’t starbucks.

  24. so the workers got fired for saying those crass things? What owner would tolerate this behavior? I go to boba guys every now and then . It explains the weird vibes at this store

  25. Good riddance- I hope they leave. What is the deal with Valencia corridor store owners treating their workers like trash? It calls to mind the disaster at Ritual coffee last year. Over-priced coffee and boba, catering to higher-income clientele while stepping on the backs of their working-class employees. Where are the profits going? Already out of reach for most long-time residents, if at the very least they can’t treat their workers right, they should not be in the neighborhood.

    1. I like Ritual. “Chicken” John was banned from the store, so the abuser was correctly dealt with, no?

      1. Actually, from what I remember, it was Chicken John who was verbally “abused” in the street and the whole situation leading to John getting kicked out of Ritual supports Joe’s point