In November of 2009, contributor to this blog, Charles Cain, told us he had discovered the “Starbucks of Tea,” a race that seemed to be taking shape in the industry. And, he said, it was . . . Starbucks.
That was so Charles. I have enjoyed watching Charles’ career since opening my first tea-centric concept with a partner in 2007 – and reading his bold, controversial, and educated musings on the tea industry. When he revealed his discovery, he was not a Vice President at Starbucks. Now he is. Turns out, Charles was right.
With Starbucks’ big-time, $600+ million dollar foray into the world of loose leaf tea retail stores, all of us who believed there was a huge future for loose leaf may feel vindicated. Should we also feel threatened? To answer that, just look at the artisan coffee retailing industry. It might give us some idea the direction things will be going.
We closed our second tea retail concept – after four-and-a-half years – last January. It was not like the first concept, and should we reopen a bricks and mortar in the future, it will not be like the second, either, even though we had 5 star Yelp rating across the board the entire time. Why? We learned what worked and what didn’t. Even Starbucks is changing the concept they initially brought to trying out a cafe concept for tea. Argo, and others have used this model for years, with tea-infused/themed food items and specialty tea beverages. Why not? They certainly know how to make that kind of concept a success!
What I’m thrilled about is that Starbucks bought into a loose leaf retail chain at all. With all the RTD, bagged/sacheted, and now tea pods, flooding the market, I am assured that we “loose leaf-ers” don’t have to question loose leaf as a viable retail concept, cafe or otherwise. We just have to do it smart and better and be funded enough to give it legs. Look for new Starbucks bottled tea specialty drinks, tea pods, etc. Still, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a “niche” isn’t done carelessly . . . even by a giant. There’s gold in them thar’ loose leaves!
And then, there are all the ancillary areas of opportunity: servicing the burgeoning loose tea industry retailers, wholesalers, foodservice, etc., in any number of creative ways. We’re seeing innovations in several areas regarding loose tea. A large smoothie chain purchased a small loose tea company via a Shark Tank connection a couple of years ago. There are at least two loose tea chains out there who have venture capital investment and very savvy boards and management teams. Then, like the Intelligentsias and Stumptowns of coffee, the “upscale” micro-chains with devoted followers known for their “coffee snobbery,” we have at least one such in the loose tea industry already, based in Northern California.
Rather than roasters, the tea industry focuses on blenders who know how stiff the competition is getting for the best artisan teas and herbals and the most delicious blends. We have our own publications, our own annual trade show(s). The Milk Board (Got Milk?) just highlighted tea as a ‘hot’ beverage trend. Have you seen what’s featured on a number of the covers of Specialty Coffee magazines the last few years? Hint: It has three letters and starts with “T.”
These are exciting times for the loose tea industry! Aren’t you glad you’re part of it?