Let’s talk about something, random.
When the word ‘ninja’ is dropped in a conversation, one may have the impression of the shadows in Japan’s Sengoku period and the masters of espionage and the art of stealth. It could also invite thoughts on popular culture such as that flashy orange-wearing blonde shinobi who loves ramen, and wanted to be (and eventually became) a hokage.
On another point, the words ‘bubble tea’ refer to one of the beverages that fill today’s list of trendy drinks. Originating from Taiwan as early as 1980s, its popularity has introduced to different palates the different flavors of tea and different varieties of mouth-watering add-ons.
Combining all these random facts, there is a shop called Ninja Bubble Tea in British Columbia (B.C.) and it is actually not owned by someone with Japanese, Thai, nor Canadian blood. Consider this as another random trivia thrown into the topic, but it is in fact owned and founded by Filipinos.
While it is not really a ‘top secret mission’ to keep their Philippine roots under the veil, the founders finally found this to be the time to be more open about it.
“We do not broadcast it often that Ninja is Filipino-owned, but when fellow kababayans do discover that it is Filipino-owned, we mutually feel a sense of pride that such a shop exists,” Founder and CEO Philbert de Torres says.
“This story is attribute of that, since its nearing six years and it’s only now that we’re reaching out to the Filipino community. Nonetheless, we are very glad to share, and there is so much to tell,” he adds.
Indeed, there is so much more to tell from Philbert’s journey and Philippine Canadian Inquirer (PCI) presents the story behind Ninja Bubble Tea.
Embarking on a journey
For something to truly begin, one must embark on a journey, and this can be literal or figurative. For Philbert’s case, it was a little bit of both.
Born in Batangas City in the Philippines, as young as 10 years old, Philbert with his father Freddie, mother Emmie, and sister Zabrina, had to prepare those suitcases of a lifetime the moment they decided to immigrate to Canada in 1992. They joined their family’s father side who were already in the Great White North since the 70s and early 80s.
While this may only be a new beginning for them, they are actually the last of that side of the family to move.
“Shortly, a year after, we moved to Coquitlam (British Columbia) for greener pastures, since Winnipeg at the time was experiencing a recession and my parents were having difficulty finding work.”
Two words best described the feeling that welcomed the family – culture shock. And these two words apply to not only language but also to social dynamics and food. Adjustment was the biggest challenge their family had to face, Philbert said, especially when they had to move away from the rest of the family in Canada.
“Having left our family support system in Winnipeg and then move to Coquitlam, a city that did not have many Filipinos at the time, my family was left to pioneer its way to have a sense of belonging in the community.”
Despite this test to their family and their Filipino-ness, the Ninja founder said that this new home has been good to them.
“My family learned to embrace the diverse culture Coquitlam had to offer, and we were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to re-start our lives in this city.”
A journey within the journey
While living in Canada is one of the paths that unfolded for his family, Philbert had another journey to take, and that was to walk and build his career path; which is actually made up of detours, corners, bumps, and intersections.
“I never knew I was going to be an entrepreneur and it was purely accidental.”
Filipinos are known for our love of singing. Not to mention, the number of singing competitions nationwide and even the echoes of Karaoke throughout the barangays. Philbert was not exempted from this love of singing. While this was the case, for someone who always had his eyes (and heart) set to being a musician, being an entrepreneur is really out of the way.
“I started singing at the age of five and won countless singing competitions.”
Philbert mentioned a few such as Jolibee Bulilit Singing Contest back in the Philippines and the YTV Vocal Spotlight in Canada. In his early 20s, he was also a finalist in Canadian Idol and a grand finalist in GMA’s Pinoy Pop Superstar. He joined the stage with Jonalyn Viray, more popularly known as Jona, who is now a mainstay at ABS-CBN.
However, with a country known for loving singing, it meant sharing the love with (almost) everyone. This applies to sharing the stage, the fame, and the dream.
“Music was difficult, you basically competed with several thousands of people with no promise of success. I can close my eyes and go back to all the auditions I have experienced and all the people I had to compete against.”
Philbert found his musical journey life-changing, and while he may have closed this chapter of his life, he feels content with what he has reached.
“My take-away from my music experience is definitely what every entrepreneur should have, and that is simply to have perseverance.”
Moving forward to his mid-20s, he was actually a Planning/Design Draftsman at a Burnaby engineering firm. The company he worked for discovered that he had a knack for photoshop and digital print and his work was used for conventions and marketing materials.
Philbert described it as a “cushy” job that was ‘not for him’ despite investing some years in the job. He said that at first, it seemed like a waste of time since it did not really challenge his full potential, but little did he know that his experience there will be an essential part of his future.
The next stop for this Filipino-Canadian was a Head Instructor post in a Taekwondo gym.
“At a very young age, [the love for martial arts] started with myself wanting to emulate and achieve the same skills my father had – being a black belter in Shotokan Karate.”
With Philbert leaving the engineering firm, a friend of his who was the Master of a school offered him the position.
“From there, I learned how to run a school, sign clients, and even do the marketing with my digital print and marketing skill experience from the engineer firm applied, I helped the school grow to a healthier number.”
While this new venture for Philbert has helped him grow in terms of handling business, he confessed that that was not really the case financially. Not only was the pay way lower than his previous, but he said that school was not doing well in terms of earnings even before he became a part of it.
Choosing to look at the brighter side, he knew the potential of the school so he worked hard for its growth. The Master of the school even offered him a “silent partnership/ownership” however, the direction and vision just kept changing.
“The turning point was when I suffered a major injury (total rupture of Achilles tendon), that made me re-think if the gym business was for me.”
Philbert shared how this injury which was physical, also affected him mentally as he went through a period of depression.
“Since I bounced around from a rollercoaster of careers, I was completely lost to what would be the next chapter of my life. Where would a musician, draftsman, martial arts instructor go next?”
When the pieces fit
The road may have been a bumpy one, but believe it or not, all of these were necessary to find his way to Ninja Bubble Tea.
“At first glance, these paths may look random on the other ends of the spectrum, but in all honesty, I value all of these ‘random’ experiences since they are prolific towards leading the success of our company.”
True to his word, that job he once called “cushy” helped him big time.
“Little did I know that I would use the skills that I gathered from that experience to design Ninja’s Floor plans, logos, videos, and marketing images that are vital for Ninja Bubble Tea’s business,” he says referring to his very first job.
But before this, how did his Way of the Ninja come to fruition?
It was one cold, freezing night in December when an old friend wanted to cheer the depressed Philbert up, through a bubble tea.
The beverage is something he described as the “closest dessert” he could think of that reminded him of our local morning (usually) sweetened soybean pudding, taho.
It was a busy late night with people rushing in and out for a drink that was basically of tea, milk, sugar, and pearls. Finding himself seated at the bubble tea place, at 10 of the evening, was an experience that changed his life and was “the spark that pulled me out of my depression.” Just to add to that momentous night, the pain he felt because of his achilles injury was suddenly non-existent as he found himself compellingly inspired to open his own bubble tea shop.
Voila! In a week, Philbert finished a “comprehensive” 100+ page business plan. This new endeavor, however, is something he could not do alone, and he knew that. This time, instead of threading the path alone, he decided to ask two people to join him – Zabrina and his bestfriend Justin Umali.
“I called it Ninja, because we wanted to run the company through the great philosophies of martial arts… that include: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, modesty, self-control, and indomitable spirit.”
Now having his own team to work with, they tendered their business plan to a bank to start with a partial funding. And with this new path that he started, Philbert parted ways with the gym. However, easy is definitely not found in his first steps as the funds were still not enough to hire general trades.
“If you see our Coquitlam location, I always like to say that we literally have our fingerprints in every nook and cranny of the shop. How? Because we built the shop with our bare hands.”
Taking the major role as the general contractor, together with his partners Zabrina and Justin, it was definitely the power of family and friends that turned the “bare empty shell site and made it to what is now.”
Just to make this already more difficult than it sounds, Philbert also shared that he was still in his crutches and in his period of healing from his injury.
“…climbing scaffolding to install drywall that is 10 to 20 ft. high. Call me crazy, but it needed to be done and I’m proud that we got it done.”
It was a success to see Ninja Bubble Tea standing… literally. But the struggles do not end here. It was only the beginning.
Who says that all it takes to start up a business is literally open a store? Probably no one, because doing so is definitely not an easy job.
In its first year, Ninja Bubble Tea, with influences and origins coming from different nations, owned by a Filipino, did not sit well with some customers.
“We even had customers that walk out simply because ‘we were not Chinese.’ Apparently to a few, if bubble tea was not served by Chinese, it was not authentic.”
Though harsh, Philbert said they just learned to roll with such comments and continued to bank on their idea.
He says that they are a go-to for their Loco Ferrero, Calamansi-Mango Chia Green Tea, Tater-Tot Poutine, and Kale Ninja. “Looking forward, we recently opened our first franchise shop at the Rivermarket, New Westminster and we are eyeing more locations in the future.”
Philbert says that they are now looking for like-minded individuals who are interested to invest and open their own Ninja Bubble Tea. Some areas they would love to be in are “Filipino areas” such as Main Street, Joyce, Surrey, and Edmonds.
Every step – good or bad, wonderful or tiring, simple or difficult – are taken as a stepping stone in Ninja’s journey. This makes their shop welcome to everyone, wishing to not cater to only one demographic, and be appealing to all.
Ninja also chooses to be involved in its surrounding community.
“We are a company that believes that service for the community translates to our existence.”
And while Ninja is a made from randomness, one thing is intact, and that is the Filipino in Philbert.
“Filipinos are very hardworking, creative, and resourceful. Whenever I see our shop, I imagine the indomitable spirit of the Filipino shining through. I am lucky to have even partial of these traits.”
Ninja Bubble Tea, amidst its mix of different ideas and cultures, makes sure to have its Philippine flag, Manny Pacquiao posters, and Calamansi drinks to remind our Kababayans of home. However, for Philbert, aside from these, “I think you will see the warmth of the Filipino in our shop.”