Blair's personal favorite - Lemon Jasmine Green Tea with Brown Sugar Boba. Photo by Blair Vandehey.
I never would have guessed, peering into the window of UniUni last summer, how much culture, dedication and care was (and is) put into that little bubble tea shop. I was lucky enough to be able to meet with shop owner Fanni Xie last Friday to learn just that.
UniUni (pronounced yoo-ni yoo-ni) has a fascinating story that begins when Xie immigrated from her homeland of China to the United States when she was a teenager for study. To cover the tuition of attending the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UW-GB), she served in the US Army for six years as a Behavioral Health Specialist. After completing her service and graduating from UW-GB, she became a social worker, primarily working with children, the elderly and veterans.
Later, using her background in social work (and love for boba) as a springboard, she opened UniUni, an anime-themed bubble tea shop, in hopes of bringing a piece of authentic Asian culture to the Fox Cities. Decorated with manga panels for wallpaper that she put up herself, stuffed animals derived from Asian pop culture and aesthetic seating arrangements, including comfortable couches and pastel-colored barstools, UniUni immerses its customers in an authentic, inclusive setting. Xie expressed her strong hope that her shop would create a space of acceptance in the area where diversity is embraced, as well as sponsor minority groups around the community.
Empowering community, regardless of background, is one of Xie’s central missions in running her store. For example, the mural within the store, which depicts a creative mix of Wisconsin and the store’s mascot, the unicorn girl, was painted by a local artist heading a small business. The animated menu and gift cards, too, were designed by artists working in the Appleton area. Xie sees being able to connect with Fox Cities-based creators as a two-way street; she receives one-of-a-kind artwork and the artist is supported in their career.
Internal community (and imagination) is just as important to Xie. One of her many artistically inclined staff members is in the process of designing characters based on the refreshments they serve, which will soon be turned into stickers available for purchase.
The inventive nature of the UniUni staff does not stop there, however. Some of the drinks that the store offers were created by the baristas themselves! Experimentation amongst the employees is encouraged, especially around holidays, where original drinks inspired by the occasion are brewed right at the counter.
On the subject of drinks, the menu at UniUni caters to its customers, regardless of preference. Using quality, made-from-scratch tea imported directly from Taiwan and homemade fruit purees, Xie has almost completely eliminated artificial flavors from UniUni. For those looking for the classic boba experience, the shop offers traditional black tea bases with tapioca pearls. Aside from such, UniUni customers can choose from a wide variety of fresh fruit teas. Even if tea isn’t your cup of tea (get it?), you can enjoy the experience through coffee-style options, as well as smoothies and Yakult (Japanese probiotic milk) drinks.
(Just between you and me, they have a secret menu where visitors unsure of what they may want to try can ask to be surprised with a chef’s choice from out of a hidden journal. Pretty adventurous, right?)
Once a customer selects a base drink, they will also be able to choose to add more than ten different kinds of boba, as well as other toppings, such as their signature cheese foam, to further personalize their beverage of choice. For those, like me, who have been trying to consume less sugar, not to worry; you can even choose different sugar levels, all the way from complete, 100% sweetened goodness to none added at all.
The menu remains ever-growing, and not just thanks to the experimental masterpieces created by the staff; Xie plans to begin serving hot drinks once winter arrives so her guests can warm up both inside and out. Be on the lookout for Asian sweets, too, compliments of her and her baker friend’s vision of sharing Eastern culture with the Avenue (she told me Hong Kong bubble waffles may be made available at one point).
Xie plans to further develop the shop itself as well. With a goal to educate visitors about her roots, she let me know she is working on bringing in traditional Chinese clothing for her customers to try on. As for education through pop culture, she also aims to host cosplay contests around Halloween for the public to attend and compete in. This approach is not the only way she wants to enrich the surrounding area’s awareness of Asian culture; much of the vacant space in the shop will one day house Japanese-style claw machines, shelves of animanga merchandise and even eco-friendly reusable UniUni cups available for purchase.
Listen up, Lawrence! UniUni has plans for you, too! They are looking to connect with students and campus organizations, and are even considering offering discounted boba with a valid LU ID. Make sure you look for them at Lawrence events in the future, as they want to begin to cater (they will make their tea onsite, in front of you. How cool is that?).
Who knows what Xie and her incredible team are brewing up next (get it?)?
Stop by UniUni, and the next thing they could be brewing up could be your very own cup of boba.