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The Taiwanese bubble tea franchise Chatime has rapidly expanded in the Twin Cities in the decade since Jonathan Chong first opened one in the Mall of America.

Chong, with business partner and wife Yenni Chen, grew the business to nine locations here and two in Colorado.

Now, Chong and Chen are going independent with their boba empire. They've left Chatime's franchise model, and are converting each store to their own brand, Niko Niko Boba. They'll have an official relaunch Sept. 23.

"While we had a lot of flexibility within the Chatime franchise model to create our own recipes, ultimately we wanted to leave the corporate structure and have the freedom to express ourselves in a new way while still serving the same quality products that Chatime fans have come to know and love," Chong and Chen said in an email about their decision to take control of the business.

Many of the local Chatime recipes were of their own making, so regular customers won't notice any disruption to their orders at Niko Niko Boba, the owners said.

"We have a lot of regulars and think people will be excited about this," Chong and Chen said. "We just want them to know it's the same people behind the new name."

Changes will come in other areas: logo, retail merchandise and other branding. "We both came from other countries but have been here for a long time, so we wanted to celebrate our Minnesota roots, evolve our menu, and craft high-quality drinks with creative flavor profiles that our customer base continues to embrace," they said.

When Chatime first opened at Mall of America in 2012, boba — cold milk tea with tapioca pearls — wasn't as widely available in the Twin Cities as it is today.

"We remember passing out a lot of samples at our first Mall of America location; many people had never tried boba before," said Chong, who is from Malaysia, and Chen, who is from Indonesia.

"Many people have a misconception that boba is a trendy drink for teens. The fact that we've been opening new shops for 11 years shows that it's not just a fad, and we can tell you that we serve people of all ages and all walks of life."

In addition to the nine Chatimes, other Taiwanese and Taiwanese-style franchises have opened in recent years, including Tiger Sugar, Bober Tea and Machi Machi.

Niko Niko Boba — the name is Japanese for "smile" — now has two locations in the Mall of America, with a third opening late next month. There are also stores in Dinkytown, Woodbury Lakes, Southdale Center, Rosedale Center, Eden Prairie Center, Ridgedale and Eat Street Crossing.

"Boba's popularity continues to grow, and we feel we've played a part in this," the couple said.