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Finding Your Tea Focus


In maintaining a tea shop, there is more to it than just selling the tea.

When your passion for tea has taken you to the point where you are inspired to open a tea shop or be involved in some business venture centures around tea, it’s time to find your focus. Many tea shops open each day and their complexity continues to grow. How do you start your own journey into the growing business of tea, while maintaining your true passion and focus? The advice below is geared towards people who are considering starting a tea business or who are in the first year of operations. It is general advice culled from a presentation I gave at the World Tea Expo, in Las Vegas in March, 2005.

Developing a Tea Strategy
First, develop a strategy that gives you step-by-step directions for your journey into the world of tea. Working on this strategy will take time and commitment and, more than likely, several drafts. However, here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

First, define your broad business goals and set a reasonable time frame in which these goals can be achieved. Is your goal to become a tea shop that carries high-end, premium teas, or would you prefer a place of social gathering specializing in various tea-related beverages, or maybe both?

Enjoy and Know the Products You Sell
If you are going to stay on track with your strategy, then it is very important that you enjoy your experience with tea. Many people make the mistake of assuming that, because of tea’s recent growth in popularity, that anyone can succeed in the tea business. Enjoying what you do is a critical aspect of staying focused and will ultimately be seen by your customers.

Stay on Top of Industry Trends
Attend courses about tea to ensure that you are knowledgeable. Of course this is of utmost importance, especially in the world of premium specialty teas. As more tea shops and other tea venues open, the need to educate consumers will become even more critical in separating your high-end teas from the ordinary teas the marketplace is accustomed to providing. There are a number of certification courses available that can help you with the basic requirements. Also, remain informed of the trends and issues that affect the tea business by reading trade publications, as well as attending industry events and seminars.

Develop a Sampling Program
Having a sampling program can help you see where your customers’ interests lies. Remember, you must set the direction for your tea program. Sampling teas that don’t interest you, will not be as successful as sampling those that you have come to know and value.

Make sure that tea remains your main focus, even if your business sells more than just tea. After all, this is what you planned on doing and it is your passion! You can build around tea in such a way that the other offerings accentuate the tea. For example, by offering complementary food and merchandise, and always making sure you highlight your tea selections or any tea-related information, you can demonstrate your focus on tea.

Tea promotions can be a good way to make sure your focus is on target with your planned strategy. Only promote the teas that are not part of your overall strategy. For example, if your overall strategy is to provide estates teas, then promoting a flavored tea can be a mistake. Your strategy should allow room to experiment from time to time to validate the direction your are going.

Periodically Assess Your Strategy and Goals
It is very important that you understand that your strategy may need to be changed, as long as it is still in line with your long-term goals. In the first year of your tea venture, you should review your strategy at least each quarter to see if you are on target. Celebrate the goals that were met and understand that maintaining your focus is what will lead to success.

Remember: These Are Very Basic Guidelines
A formalized strategic plan for any business includes financial forecasting and assessments, product descriptions, marketing/distribution plans and market/competition analysis. Each of these is an integral part of your planning, and requires months of research and development.

Don’t Try to Be Something for Everyone.
We have all heard the expression, “Being something for everyone”. In the business of tea, this means carrying teas that pleases everyone that may visit your business. This can be dangerous, but can be avoided by realizing your initial goals and staying focused. If you try to please everyone in the specialty tea business, you may find that your business lacks the focus you desired. There are so many options and variations - from origins and grades of tea, to flavoring, blending, herbal infusions, beverage varieties, etc. Having the tea selection your strategy dictates will allow you to specialize within the selections you carry.

When you know your market you can also avoid carrying too many teas. Those individuals who fail to research their market can find themselves feeling the need to carry whatever seems to be “hot” or trendy. Sometimes, specializing in certain categories can be an advantage over your competition. Your potential customers may perceive you as more exclusive by having a limited selection of a specific category of teas.

Take care to properly judge tea trends. Looking at the history, in the somewhat young life of specialty teas, you can see that the core teas are still here. The Yunnans and Darjeelings are here to stay, while many other “so-called teas” or lesser quality blends ride the coattails of current trends. Most tea purists believe that there are three main categories in tea, but variations continue to show up. Many teas in today’s marketplace don’t even contain actual tea! In my opinion, a lot can be too much. Of course, you need to determine what too much is, given your specific marketplace. Part of your strategy should be to set your categories and limit the number of tea you will carry in each category. For example, if you choose to carry green and oolong teas, then set the amount of each you will carry. Then, allow at least one or two openings for special tea that may come available in those categories.

Keep a Watch on Your Competition and the Industry
Finding your focus in tea and staying on track with your strategy sometimes goes hand-in-hand with watching what your competition is doing. Specialty tea sellers are still small in numbers, so looking at the competition can be a way of differentiating yourself or doing something similar that is obviously working. You may find that, after looking at your competition, your overall strategy needs refining. Your strategy may change, but your focus on tea should not.

For example, speed of service may or may not be a point of differentiation, depending on your establishment. Looking at your competition’s business environment and comparing it to your overall strategy will help determine if speed of service should concern you.

Over the past three years, the number of new products in the tea market has increased dramatically. Review these products, keep on top of what’s new, and see if they fit the planned direction for your business. Avoid switching gears when you see that something is becoming sought-after, simply because, by the time you switch, the popularity may have come and gone. Stay on track with your strategy and try to avoid making changes midstream to react to recent trends. Or, if you do decide to react to those trends, formalize this in your planning.

Stick with your planned strategy and try to develop products that are exclusive to your brand. Your brand is who you are. Whether you are using a private labeler or doing everything yourself, your name is on the package. Some of your local competition may be using a private label supplier to help with start-up ideas and to lower start-up costs. As part of your overall tea-selling plan, consider using a private label supplier.

Tea: The Whole Package
Your decision to be a tea supplier may also include the decision to serve specialty tea-related beverages. Whether you are serving iced tea, tea lattes or blended beverages, your goal should always be to use high quality tea to support the beverage. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the beverage is mixed with milk, powders, etc. that you can use low-grade teas.

You may decide to eventually expand your brand name, For example, you may wish to include ready-to-drink beverages. A private label supplier can be of great assistance in this case. The same rule applies: always use good quality tea.

Keep in mind that specialty tea drinkers are also looking for the right wares for brewing and drinking their tea. Sometimes there is nothing better than a scone with a cup of tea. Carrying a small variety of cakes or cookies can be a great addition to your overall menu. Just as you wouldn’t sacrifice quality with the teas you serve, don’t sacrifice quality on your baked goods. Look for a reputable, local bakery that can provide you with fresh-baked goods each day. Offering delicious baked goods will add to your tea customers’ experience.

Quality: Know Your Teas
As mentioned throughout this article, quality should be the most important factor when deciding to serve tea. To start with the basics, tea has a shelf life that must be followed to ensure that your blends will always be the best that they can be. As your business grows, you may decide to carry specific teas that require certain certifications. Perhaps your strategy may be to become a leader in organic teas. If that’s the case, you will need to obtain an organic certification and make sure that your supplier has the proper certifications.

Try to visit a tea estate so you can see first-hand the process that brings tea from planting to cup. This will make you more knowledgeable about what makes good quality tea. Then, part of your focus should be to strive for creating your own tea blends. Having your own blends can set you apart from the competition. You are the blends that you create, and your customers will recognize your uniqueness and look forward to more of your creations.

The most important thing is that you know the nuances of the teas you decide to carry. Knowing your teas will help you maintain your quality levels and help with creating future blends.

Coffee and Tea: A Perfect Match
Clearly, there are two different types of customers in coffee and tea. It is often difficult to create what we know as a “tea atmosphere” while trying to cater to those customers who prefer coffee. Some feel that a shop specializing exclusively in tea cannot survive; others feel that to mix the two takes away from the primary focus.

I believe that coffee and tea make a great match, as long as they both have an equally specialized focus. You can chose and show tea as your primary focus, while carrying a small selection of premium coffees to position your shop as a high-end coffee/tea shop.

If You Stray... Getting Back On Track
If you feel that you may have strayed from your strategy, then go back and review it. Ask yourself, “Am I where I planned on being at this time?” Understand that changes can and should be made - the process is fluid and ongoing.

You will stack stay on track when you find out what you do and know best, and focus on those things. Remove those things that have become obstacles and watch your tea business grow by.

David DeCandia is the production manager and tea buyer for the specialty coffee roaster/retailer, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, based in California.

Tea & Coffee - August/September, 2005


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