As seen on The Boston Globe: New to town: A second life for chopsticks, a bubble tea spot, and a TikTok store
Elaine Chow checked a chopstick before adding it to a compression mold at ChopValue in Charlestown. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE.
A new factory in Charlestown will turn your chopsticks into furniture.
Elaine Chow believes your chopsticks can be more than utensils. In fact she knows they can.
The Savin Hill resident is giving “a mountain of chopsticks” a second life at a new micro-factory that was launched in Charlestown in early September. (Its formal grand opening is Oct. 25.) There, Chow melds the breakable wooden staples of Asian food into something more: cellphone stands ($11), charcuterie boards ($67), and even tables ($960).
It’s all possible through ChopValue, a Canadian company that franchises factories that create chopstick-based homewares to people like Chow. (”Once a chopstick, now a statement,” its motto reads.) She leads the charge locally by collecting used utensils from more than 100 Greater Boston restaurants and running the machines that turn them into their final form. Chow eventually packs and delivers online orders of cribbage boards and workstation desks — all once used to eat sushi or stir-fry — all over New England.
The draw for her is sustainability, and the ChopValue micro-factory already reigns as one of the only entirely cyclical businesses in Eastern Massachusetts, Chow said.
“With Mayor [Michelle] Wu and the impact of the pandemic, it feels like Boston is at a turning point,” she added. “People are realizing more and more that we can’t just continue to consume and build up piles of trash. We can do better.”
Chopsticks are shaken and sorted in a sorting machine at the ChopValue micro-factory. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Here’s how it works.
Four days a week, a ChopValue truck visits restaurants around the region, picking up bags of used chopsticks. That itself is a win-win: Businesses are left with less waste to dispose of, and Chow has raw materials to work with. In six months, she has amassed 2.5 million chopsticks, weighing 15,000 pounds, and that number keeps growing.
Back at the factory, Chow and three employees sort the sticks by color and separate them into mesh baskets. Then the utensils are dipped into resin and baked for 12 hours at 200 degrees, a process that allows them to harden and the resin to crystalize. Staffers then press a 3,000-pound machine on the sticks to flatten them, and what comes out on the other side is a durable tile — one of three sizes — that can be connected, sanded, and cut into the finished product.
The process has proved to be labor-intensive, and Chow is on the hunt for two more employees, which is tough in the tight labor market. (“My body hurts,” she quipped.) But after years of working in human relations, she has fallen in love with the factory’s green mission — and the chance to build on a love for woodworking that she picked up during the pandemic. Chow built a picnic table and shed to cover her trash bins during early COVID, before quitting her job and buying the franchise in September 2021.
Taivon Pruitt-Jamison poured out a bag of used chopsticks to be sorted. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
“I have forever and ever been obsessive [with] recycling,” she said. But she found ChopValue while scrolling through social media one day. “I actually have the computer algorithm to thank. It finally did a good thing.”
So far, Chow has worked with the MIT Sloan School of Management to create coasters engraved with the university’s skyline, and a cadre of restaurants are behind her, too: engraved with the university s skyline, and a cadre of restaurants are behind her, too: TsuruTonTan in Kenmore, Pho Hoa in Dorchester, and Yamoto II in Copley, among others. More continue to join, and Chow is happy to take them on. The 6,000-square-foot factory can process up to 1,200 pounds of chopsticks a week before it must add another production shift and expand.
“We’ll deal with that when we get there,” she said.
Matthew Wenger sorted chopsticks to be made into a raw tile. CARLIN STIEHL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Milk tea, anyone?
The reign of bubble tea continues.
Cousins and Boston natives Ting-Ho Tam and Barry Tam opened a branch of Gong Cha in Harvard Square this September, carrying favorites like matcha lattes and dirty brown sugar milk teas for thirsty students. Founded in Taiwan in 1996, Gong Cha already operates 19 storefronts in New England, including 15 Massachusetts locations — severalin Boston, and others as far as Marlborough and Lowell.
The pair was inspired to launch the business — “the best decision of our lives,” Ting-Ho said — by their family, who once ran several Chinese restaurants in New Hampshire. “We learned how to work in a fast-paced environment,” he added. “In many ways, we already knew what to do.”
Ting-Ho Tam, a franchisee of Gong Cha, inside the bubble tea company's new Harvard Square location ANGELA ROWLINGS
They’re also working under the guidance of Anchal Lamba, a New York City resident and Gong Cha’s “youngest and most successful” master franchisee in the United States, according to the company. Lamba started with a single Gong Cha location in Queens eight years ago and expanded into Allston and Chinatown in 2017. Now, she manages 750 employees at storefronts across the Northeast.
“Harvard Square has always been on my list,” she said. “It’s quaint and busy with tons of college students, who we know love, love, love bubble tea.”
A storefront for TikTok trends
Think back to September 2021.
Netflix had just released “Squid Game,” the Korean smash hit that made fans flock to dalgona candy. Many took to TikTok to recreate the inexpensive sweet treat featured in the thriller and poke shapes, like circles and stars, out of its crispy crust. Others bought it from Showcase, a trend-spotting retailer that brings the Internet’s latest affections to physical storefronts at lightning speed, somewhere between 16 and 53 days after the products begin popping up in users’ feeds.
Now, the “retail-tainment” giant (a term coined by the company, of course) has expanded into Massachusetts with new locations at South Shore Plaza and Burlington Mall, and soon-to-open spaces at the Northshore Mall in Peabody, Pheasant Lane Mall in Nashua, N H and the Mall of Rockingham Park in Salem N H.
“Shoppers will now have convenient access to a store filled with the hottest social media trends they won’t find elsewhere,” said Showcase CEO Samir Kulkarni in a statement.
In recent years, Showcase has stocked wares that exploded in popularity online and earned an immediate following. That includes squishmallows, trading cards, funko pops, hot chocolate bombs, and food-themed novelty candles. But the company was first founded in 1994 to sell infomercial products.
Its latest pivot to the World Wide Web has brought an increase in sales, and over 30 new stores are slated to open in 2022.