Hey Bear Cafe, located at 9036 Middlebrook Pike, serves boba tea to Knoxville and has found success as a small business despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hey Bear Cafe started in a corner of Sunrise Supermarket before transitioning to its own storefront in 2019. Since then, the cafe has served tea, held events and provided food trucks for customers to enjoy. The owner, Vicky Shyr, crafted the cafe with her partners as a place for everyone to gather.
“I wanted to create a place the entire family could enjoy, with our atmosphere outside and a menu that is friendly to everyone, regardless of age,” Shyr said. “It’s also a place for friends to hang out and just relax and make memories together. This is something I wish I had growing up.”
Born in Taiwan, Shyr grew up in Georgia before moving to Knoxville and she has infused her culture into Hey Bear Cafe.
“So we first started selling boba tea just out of pure love for a favorite childhood drink, and a desire to share that part of our culture with this town,” Shyr said. “Then, we were very lucky to have a wonderful customer base when we were selling bubble tea in Sunrise, and I just really wanted to create a place to better serve our amazing customers.”
Shyr makes sure to provide authentic tea for her customers.
“… I import all of the tea from Taiwan, which has been made very difficult due to Covid, with the increased import fees and delays,” Shyr said.
Along with these delays, COVID-19 has changed how Hey Bear Cafe operates. They try to keep their customers safe while still serving them. They started by shutting down the inside seating area.
“Instead, we focused on providing outside seating, pavilions, outdoor heating, and plenty of sanitization methods so our customers can still enjoy themselves in a relatively safe manner during this difficult time,” Shyr said. “We’ve been doing alright, but this community has been supportive and we’re very grateful for that.”
Hey Bear Cafe has attracted different groups of people to its shop. Alongside families, high school and college students have gathered here as a hangout spot.
“It’s so cute,” Shyr said. “They use the outdoor space and just have a group and study.”
However, Shyr didn’t start Hey Bear Cafe to bring in any specific customer base.
“Honestly, we didn’t have a target demographic in mind when we started, it was really about spreading what we love to everyone in this community,” Shyr said. “We really believe that if you have something good, it’ll appeal to everyone.”
Hey Bear Cafe doesn’t just serve drinks. They accommodate for different food trucks as well. However, it took them a while to get trucks to come on a regular basis due to different COVID-19 regulations.
“After we got everything figured out, we were able to provide a place for them to come consistently,” Shyr said. “Now it’s mainly the weather that causes them to have to shut down. We have plenty of space and we follow the safety guidelines for Covid, so food trucks like to come here often.”
Shyr provides for her workers as well, keeping most of her staff since Hey Bear started.
A freshman at Pellissippi State Community College, Journey Bolter, started when the Cafe first opened.
“I love (working here),” Bolter said. “We’ve all gotten really close because it’s such a small business and there’s only like … 11 or 12 of us that work here, so we’re all pretty much working with each other all the time... it’s been nice to be able to still work (during the pandemic).”
Boulter said she likes to provide people with boba tea because, “boba tea is happiness.”
Shyr has many plans for the future of Hey Bear Cafe. These include plans for live music from local bands in the spring every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They also plan to do “a spring market” which will be on Sundays. This market will have many kinds of vendor, not just food.
“Anything that’s local, we’ll take it!” Shyr said.
Shyr eyes a future location for Hey Bear Cafe sometime in 2022. She couldn’t say much about it except that it “is a very unique space” and that she’s “excited to expand Hey Bear Cafe in another part of the town.”
Presently, Shyr wants to continue serving everyone around her.
“We have all kinds of people come here to enjoy our space, our drinks, the local food trucks and local vendors,” Shyr said. “It really creates a great sense of community and an environment that is welcoming to all. That’s what I hope we can continue to do, through quality tea and great customer service.”
Hey Bear Cafe operates from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and an additional 30 minutes on Friday and Saturday night. They provide outdoor seating or curbside pickup. Their website provides a look at their menu along with a food truck calendar. They update their Instagram and Facebook pages constantly.