UNIVERSITY AREA — Walking through the front door of The International Boba House from the busy commerce along the University of South Florida’s western edge is like stepping into a lava lamp.
The décor skews toward plush and colorful, with couches and recliners for customers who play video games on large HD monitors, watch live performances on a small stage or take in works of local artists showcased on the cafe’s walls. Celestial background music sets the vibe.
Boba drinks are the big attraction. Blends of finely shredded ice and flavored syrup are poured over a layer of boba — dark, round nuggets of tapioca derived from taro root. The drinks are served with a straw wide enough to allow passage of the boba, so customers have something to chew while they sip.
About a dozen fruit flavored syrups, from guava to grape, are available and can be combined to suit individual taste. Coffee and tea (including milk tea) also are served.
Taiwan is considered the birthplace of boba. The drink became popular on the West Coast of the United States before gaining a foothold in Tampa.
The lure of an exotic treat such as a boba drink can draw customers. But The International Boba House’s devoted following might be due as much to the business approach taken by its owner, Nam Nguyen, 42.
He refers to the business as a place “where strangers become less strange, which really does reflect the friendliness and welcoming nature of our customers and staff.” It has been Nguyen’s guiding principle since he bought the business from his brother in 2008.
Boba drinks have been served at the storefront at 2764 University Square Drive since 2004. At the former Boba Internet Café, customers browsed the Internet wirelessly or from counters filled with desktop computers.
The PCs are gone, the name has changed to The International Boba House and the emphasis now is on live entertainment and hosting special events. Customers can access the Internet but there also are game boards and a book exchange.
Live entertainment can happen just about anytime, but Friday is open mic night and the stage is open to anyone.
“Some of these acts that come in are amazing,” said manager Matt DePeri, 28. “It’s not like some karaoke night.”
Ben Watts, 23, finds the audience at The International Boba House to be a welcome challenge for his stand-up comedy.
“I like the variety of people,” he said. “You get a clash of perspectives from a diverse crowd.”
The boba drinks and entertainment attract a steady flow of customers, which includes university students and array of others.
Change is part of most successful enterprises and DePeri, who brief culinary career spans fine dining to chain restaurants, was hired to manage that process.
The plan is to expand business hours, enabling International Boba House to open early in the morning and emphasize coffee service for commuters. Negotiations are underway with local coffee roasters so the menu will reflect Tampa’s burgeoning coffee industry.
But boba enthusiasts don’t have to worry about The International Boba House abandoning its commitment to the sweet and chewy concoction they love.
“Boba is our bread and butter,” DePeri said.
The International Boba House is open seven days a week. It serves light snacks and pastries as well as drinks.