We are about to close the door on one phase of our tea life and move onto another. For us, this has been a place to learn about and refine what works in tea retailing. Now we are looking at new locations that we believe will serve us better. California Tea & Coffee Brewery has the most amazing customers who have graced us with beautiful relationships and reviews and we are so thankful for that. We’re known in our city of Temecula as “the tea place” by our customers and have run strictly on word of mouth – no couponing, no Grouponing – just giving lots of samples, perks, and attention to the people who matter most … our customers.
At the same time as we are transitioning personally to our next phase, the specialty tea industry seems to be in a similar situation. With Starbucks buying Teavana and opening a Tazo tea store concept as well, with plans to roll it out and make tea as ubiquitous as coffee, one more megacorp is entering the tea retail store marketplace. Unilever owns Lipton, PG Tips, and Lyons brands. They plan an international chain of retail loose-leaf tea stores within the next five years or so. So, what’s ahead for small tea retailers?
I like to look at companies like Intelligentsia Coffee, smart companies who have learned how to survive in a world dominated by one or a small handful of brands. What do they do that sets them apart? Intelligentsia’s name is a clue. They brand themselves as the elite alternative to the big chains – more passionate, more professional, and more focused. Dare I use the word “snobby”? It has worked for them. On the opposite branding end, there’s Stumptown, owned by a tattooed rebel of sorts, who also has found a way to stand out in the crowd of independents with his strong personality and even stronger, bolder coffee roasts. One we’ve been compared to, in feel, by visitors from the San Francisco area is Philz Coffee, which has become a chain itself with about 15 stores and expanding from Northern California into the Los Angeles / Orange County area. They brew coffee – just brew coffee – that’s the whole deal, one cup at a time in pour-overs, in lots of flavors, and using real cream (forget the calories!). The founder, Phil – who is Philz Coffee – is the epitome of anti-establishment / anti-corporate / anti-slick.
Can tea shop owners learn to thrive if Starbucks takes over the tea world as they did the coffee world? Will there be a tea version of Vivace or Intelligentsia? I’d say Samovar is a good example. Samovar has found a niche in the Bay Area and thrives, with its upscale image and tea-themed fine food. Of course, there are many others that you could name in your respective areas.
One thing is for sure: With the giants getting serious about specialty tea, the timing is here – finally – for loose-leaf tea to be a serious contender for consumer dollars. I know it is all about the benefits of tea, the love of tea, the passion for tea. That’s why we all got into it. However, to stay in it, there’s work ahead. I just hope that really great quality loose-leaf tea won’t be the loser in all of this, that estate owners won’t be competing for mega-business, trying to get prices lower and lower. You know; you’ve read the stories. What’s next? The “Wal-Mart of Tea”? I think they already tried a few in-store coffee houses and that didn’t work out.
So our personal tea journey and the industry’s tea journey continues. It looks like a long and winding road, but a very interesting one in which more and more people will be exposed to the beautiful Camellia sinensis plant.