The tea wholesalers interviewed agreed that selling to hotels could be a profitable way to get brand exposure. David Nicholls, corporate director of food and beverage for The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, and Joane Filler-Varty, vice president of hospitality sales and development at Mighty Leaf Tea, explained that hotels are often interested in tea for three main purposes: foodservice, in-room brewing and extra guest perks.
While hotels’ foodservice needs mirror those of restaurants (see part one), hotels often have additional considerations. Cynthia Fazekas (U.S. wholesale manager for direct sales at Adagio Tea) said hotels lean toward individually wrapped, premium pre-bagged teas (such as pyramid bags or muslin sachets) and blooming teas (especially for events and VIP guests) for increased freshness, ease of service and luxury. Filler-Varty (who works with hotel groups such as The Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons, as well as boutique hotels like The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, PA, and Salish Lodge outside Seattle, WA) said both comforting hominess and local flair are important in hotels’ tea menus. Nicholls said this balance could be achieved through innovative proprietary or locally sourced blends.
In-room teas have wholly different requirements from hotel foodservice teas. Sources said hotels typically carry one to four tea varieties per room (whereas the total offerings for the hotel may range upwards of 20 teas), but that the in-room teas must often provide the same sense of comfort, luxury and local flavor that a full tea list could. Chris Cason (co-owner of Tavalon Tea) added that elegant, single-serving presentation “has to be there,” but “the quality has to make them want to drink it, not just look at it.” He said that when he presents potential in-room teas to hotels, he keeps in mind three points: many hotels want a custom blend, trendy hotels prefer more glamorous options (like rare white teas or unusual blends) and classic hotels are more likely to want similarly classic teas, like Earl Grey or English Breakfast. Fazekas added that many hotels prioritize in-room tea needs as: a breakfast tea, a caffeine-free evening tea, a green tea for a healthy vibe and then a connoisseur tea, like Monkey-Picked Oolong or Silver Needle, for panache. She also noted that boutique hotels and smaller chains are often interested in in-room electric water kettles with tea-brewing-temperature indicators.
Additional tea-related guest perks vary by the hotel, and knowledge of the operations of each prospective hotel client can help you address secondary tea needs and niches. For example, Filler-Varty said the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s gift shop offers the ML Collection in travel-ready, elegantly designed packaging in conjunction with peripheral display aids. Other potential areas for tea’s inclusion are at check-in, during a separate afternoon tea meal, in hotel spas (such as Mandarin Oriental New York’s Oriental Tea Lounge and tea-paired treatments) and at hotel bars (where tea may be served straight and/or in tea cocktails). Filler-Varty said the key to landing peripheral tea contracts with hotels is to understand their operations and how to fit a tea program into how they conduct business.
Nicholls emphasized that tea helps distinguish the Mandarin Oriental brand, turn casual customers into regulars and encourage publicity through word-of-mouth and specialized press. He said that each hotel within the group chooses its tea vendor independently to appeal to international travelers’ palates with local flair, and that selected vendors work with individual hotels to make their teas a holistic part of the guest experience through menu creation and employee training.
While hotel tea training needs are typically similar to those of restaurants, Filler-Varty said that in robust, large-scale hotel tea programs, custom blends, training, menu development, tea cocktails, spa treatment pairings and food pairings might take several months. Sources noted that, like restaurants, hotels often have a high turnover rate and require regular retraining.
In Pursuit of Tea’s founder, Sebastian Beckwith, said spas often take up a lot of time with making every detail of their tea program “ultra, perfectly perfect.” He quipped that spas are prone to ordering a pound of chamomile to last for a few years, and then switching to a pound of mint for the next few years after that. Art of Tea sales rep Maria Warman added that a hotel is much more likely to close a deal than a spa. Although sources agreed that spas could be frustrating to work with, several found ways of making their potential spa clients into regular customers.
Cason said spas often see tea as a way to distinguish their client experience from competitors’ offerings, but may express concern over the costs of implementing a tea program. To assuage these concerns, Cason and Warman both encourage spas to retail the teas they serve, thereby offsetting the cost of complimentary tea with each spa service.
Cason also encourages spas to put teas to alternative uses; one client infuses their sauna water with white tea and peppermint. He said this kind of approach brings tea to spa clients’ awareness and provides them with a luxury experience that is specific to that spa.
Sources said spas typically prefer white and green teas and tisanes like lemongrass and chamomile, but sometimes include a classic black tea or two on their menu for more old-fashioned clients. Filler-Varty added that organic teas, wellness blends and detoxifying teas and tisanes are also popular with spas. Cason said spas typically carry five to ten teas total, but may serve only a few on any given day and rotate the tea menu regularly. Warman said spas are more open to loose tea than restaurants, but Filler-Varty said space and equipment concerns lead some spas to select premium bagged teas over loose-leaf. Filler-Varty found that iced tea also has a place in spas; she offers a specific range of hydrating iced teas to spas, including a detoxifying tea that comes in large bags for brewing large quantities of tea at once.
Cruises have similar needs to hotels, but they have additional logistical needs. Filler-Varty said individually wrapped servings are imperative for freshness, and that compact packaging, brewing equipment and supplemental storage equipment (such as shelves) help compensate for ships’ lack of space. Training equipment, tea shipments and equipment installation requires more planning than most businesses, as cruise ships are rarely stationary, Filler-Varty said. She added that cruise ships often carry a large range of teas, with different offerings in each of their themed restaurants.
Tea cocktails are quickly becoming another way for trend-setting bars to offer something different or showcase their skills. Tea libations are in a very experimental phase right now, and run the gamut from more standard Earl-Grey-and-vodka types to white-tea-infused gin with local honey and rose water (one of Cason’s creations). Sources said most bars only offer one to two different tea cocktails at any given time (as tea cocktails target a more niche audience), but they frequently rotate their offerings and experiment with new tea concoctions.
The main consideration for most bars is speed of preparation, and it is exceedingly rare that a bartender will brew tea for individual tea cocktails. A few quick tea cocktail solutions are making headway in the high-end bar scene. Shelf-stable, prepackaged tea syrups like Mighty Leaf’s AperiTea line condense the flavors of tea and fruit for instant mixing. Tavalon offers custom batches of mixers for various local businesses, and Cason sometimes even mixes them at Bloomingdale’s events. Beckwith takes a different approach - he teaches bartenders like Audrey Sanders (award-winning bartender of New York City’s illustrious Pegu Club) to make tea-infused simple syrups and spirits in their bars at his annual tea cocktail workshops in Connecticut. Regardless of the method employed, the idea is that bartenders simply mix the tea ingredient with liquor, a garnish and ice, and then serve.
Beckwith (who works with renowned New York City bars like PDT, Death & Co. and Empire Club) said that Julie Reiner (the award-winning bartender and owner of Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan and Clover Club in Brooklyn, NY) has sold over 11,000 Beijing Peach tea cocktails, making it her best-selling cocktail. He and Cason agreed that the best way to get into top bars is to build a reputation through events (such as Beckwith’s tea cocktail seminars and Cason’s behind-the-bar work at Bloomingdale’s) and let word of mouth do the rest.
Sources added that bars rarely serve tea sans alcohol, but that hotel bars are more likely to offer both teas and tea cocktails. Additionally, some Los Angeles bars offer Art of Tea’s “Pre-Tox” and “Post-Tox” Ayurvedic blends, some casinos serve Mighty Leaf’s teas straight and Brooklyn’s Huckleberry Bar serves a handful of In Pursuit of Tea’s teas.
More than anything, packaging is paramount to high-end department stores. Cason, who retails at Bloomingdale’s, said visual impact is desirable, but that functional aspects of packaging, such as they way it fits on the shelf and whether or not it’s stackable, are also important. Filler-Varty said gift-able, pack-able packaging is important for products that are sold in department stores (or gift stores) where tourists make up a large percentage of the customer base, and that reusable packages (such as tins) are popular and have an added bonus of acting as long-term advertising. Fazekas said that color-coded packaging, a well-designed logo, a “gifty” look, sealable inner pouches (for bagged teas) and UV-filtering, clear lids (for loose teas) were all factors for Adagio’s presence at The Afternoon, a high-end department store chain in the Midwest. Sources indicated that pyramid bags and tea pouches prevail over loose tea for gift purchases.
Packaging is also a concern for gourmet retailers. Warman said the clean, colorful look of Art of Tea’s retail tins were one of the main things that excited Whole Foods, one of their newest retailers. Caroline Cahan, the coffee and tea manager and buyer for Chapel Hill, NC’s prestigious gourmet retailer A Southern Season, said she looks for dynamic visuals, contrasting colors and, above all, clear, abundant information on tea retail packaging.
Gourmet food shops often have additional needs for their tea vendors. We asked Cahan what she looks for in potential vendors. She said products that fit into her line and exceptional customer service are essential, and gave us a list of traits that influence her vendor selections at A Southern Season. Below we present her observations as a case study of the needs of gourmet retailers.
Known standards, like Twinings and Taylors of Harrogate, are a must for most gourmet retailers.
Smaller, specialty lines are the direction the industry is headed, and can be exciting additions for retailers and their customers. In total, Cahan carries about three-dozen packaged tea lines.
Most of A Southern Season’s prepackaged tea sales are still traditional teabags. Pyramid bags’ sales are slightly down this year, as they tend to be more expensive than traditional teabags.
Traditional teabags, sachets and pyramid teabags make up nearly double the sales volume of loose-leaf tea.
A Southern Season currently has roughly 600 active tea SKUs, and they add new teas from old and/or new vendors to their offerings each season.
Cahan offers nearly 100 private-labeled, loose-leaf teas from over a dozen tea packers. She built this line up over the years to provide a reliable, local source for those who would otherwise buy premium teas through mail order or the Internet.
Over half of the loose teas Cahan carries are “everyday teas” that come in self-serve two- and four-ounce packages. The remaining loose-leaf teas are higher quality and are packed to-order in one-ounce tins.
The 40-some fine loose-leaf teas that Cahan carries are generally single estate. However, her overall tea offerings (including prepackaged teas) lean toward flavored blends. She said customers may buy only one unflavored Ceylon, but they are likely to buy several different flavored Ceylons.
Cahan’s customers love demos and samplings. If a tea company can send a rep to facilitate these events, all the better. If not, Cahan appreciates companies that periodically mail complimentary stock for customer demos and samplings.
A Southern Season holds quarterly tea seminars with “tea luminaries” (such as Bruce and Shelly Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and Winnie Yu of Teance) for their customers. Companies with tea leaders who are willing to travel and present seminars have a leg up on the competition, especially if they incorporate staff training into store visits.
Cahan said honesty, openness and communication from her vendors are imperative. If there is a change or a problem with a tea, she expects advance notification and discussion to find the solution that best suits her customers.
Email or telephone contact about new arrivals, changes in pricing, updates about origins and notifications about what’s running low on the vendor’s end are all important to Cahan, who uses the information to make informed decisions and keep her customers happy.
A minimum order size is not a factor in vendor selection for Cahan, but she prefers to order groups of teas in vacuum-packed bags in one- to five-pound sizes to keep her stock fresh.
Cahan looks for vendors who have a commitment to quality and consistency, regardless of the price category.
Most of Cahan’s suppliers offer a wide range of teas, but she tends to “cherry-pick,” sourcing only the strongest products from each vendor. Having a strong specialization (such as artisanal oolongs) helps.
Teaware is not a must, but a well-designed teaware line that goes along with a vendor’s tea specialty (such as Yi Xing teaware with Chinese teas or English porcelain teaware with British tea blends) sometimes catches Cahan’s eye.
Cahan is more likely to pick a vendor with whom she feels an intuitive connection than one she does not.
As tea trends change, Cahan looks for vendors to fill the void and give her customers a “well-rounded experience of tea.” About a decade ago, customers were requesting more green tea, so she added vendors of quality green tea. Now, the shift is toward low-caffeine teas and caffeine-free tisanes, as well as flavored greens and very high-end teas.
Many vendor hopefuls send Cahan samples, but what really intrigues her is reading or hearing about strong companies and being exposed to new vendors through trade shows.
Lindsey “Vee” Goodwin is a tea specialist who has written and lectured on tea topics ranging from cutting tearoom costs to creating tea cocktails to marketing tea toward Generation Y consumers. Her articles have appeared in various publications and she has also written blog posts for companies including Samovar Tea Lounge and Urbana Cityspa & Teabar, and been a consultant for a number of new tea businesses. You can reach her via email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at LindseyAtVeeTea.