My adventure in the world of specialty tea began when I heard someone off-handedly say “someday there will be a Starbucks of tea.” Looking for a new business opportunity at the time, I felt as if a spotlight came on and a symphony orchestra began playing. No one will ever be the Starbucks of tea, but the thought of building a concept around tea retailing was certainly intriguing.
Even a cursory examination of specialty tea showed a wide open and amazing opportunity for the right concept, with double-digit growth and sales of specialty tea in the billions of dollars and projected to continue for years. Yet, I could think of no retail store, let alone chain, where I could buy good loose leaf tea “to go”. Why? Well, for one thing, the brewing time of tea seemed to preclude a piece of the consumer pie that coffee and espresso has garnered. A cup of hot water and a tea bag in a to-go cup just didn’t excite anyone and was as far from the taste experience of fine loose leaf tea as instant coffee is from quality roasted, ground, and brewed beans.
So began what has become a five-year adventure and a quest to learn everything possible about specialty tea and specialty tea retailing. Coincidentally, this journey started the same year that the first World Tea Expo was held in Las Vegas. While attending, I met some of the leaders and future leaders in the industry, not only in tea, but in complementary businesses such as water filtration, brewing equipment, and even the beginnings of an attempt at tea chain franchising by one lone attendee company whose booth contained design layouts of stores and two company executives recently recruited from Blimpie’s Subs. There was a sense of knowing we were all heading in an exciting direction and were on the cutting edge of something really “big”.
Since that time, several of the companies I saw at the Expo have become vendors and, in some long-distance way, friends. There have been start-up tea retail concepts since the ’90’s, some still around, and a few changing to wholesaling. One has become a true tea house chain with around 14 stores and counting and another, Teavana, is the U.S. leader in specialty tea retailing, racking up over 50 stores in major upscale malls. Joining the party as well is German import, TeaGschwendner, who is planning to franchise in the U.S. Things are getting interesting.
As for yours truly, I’m working on my second store, as a co-founder, in approximately two years. My current partners and I are more excited than ever about changing the perception of tea and making it more accessible to both retailers and the public through our patent-pending technology, which accelerates the brewing time of any loose leaf tea or tisane to just one minute but maintains the complete integrity of the infusion. There are other new or newish brewing processes as well, including the espresso-style Teapresso and Affinitea machines, not to mention dozens of consumer tea gadgets and brewers like Zarafina. Tea consumers love to see and buy the latest in making their tea experience even more enjoyable.
There will always be traditional tea houses and tea rooms, but there is a motivated and focused group of tea entrepreneurs who see that specialty tea can be the “everyday habit” coffee houses have become in our culture by presenting it in a way that Americans are familiar with. We may look a bit “edgy” and non-traditional, but we have the heart and soul of true tea lovers, with deep respect for the history, tradition, and product quality that make up specialty loose leaf tea.