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Gourmet Restaurant,
Gourmet Tea

BY AMELIA C. LEVY

Picture this: You sit down to enjoy a gourmet meal at an upscale restaurant. Your eloquently set table is covered in a white tablecloth. The waiter opens a bottle of their finest wine, and delivers it to your glass with a flourish. You savor it with the culinary masterpiece that is your meal. Afterwards, a fancy silver dessert cart is wheeled out and you choose the most exquisite-looking delicacy. You order tea to accompany your dessert, and the waiter brings you the same teabag you got at the diner last night, along with a lukewarm cup of water. Disappointing, isn’t it? Especially when, restaurateurs say, the end of a meal is the part that the leaves the most lasting impression with the customer.

The scenario above is still not uncommon in North American foodservice, but times are changing. “Food Service is latching onto this incredible trend toward tea by building into their menus premium teas that offer experiences and flavor on par with the signature foods of the restaurant,” says Doug Gerber, national sales manager for foodservice at Tazo Tea. More and more restaurant owners are wising up to the fact that the average consumer is far more educated on the subject of gourmet beverages and the tea health message than he or she was a decade ago. And they are looking to tea companies to help them meet these new demands.

Tazo's Presence in foodservice venues is always growing.
Although it is coffee that still receives the bulk of the press concerning consumer awareness of specialty beverages, tea has been quietly following on its heels in recent years. Coffee shops have increased their inventory of specialty and gourmet teas, including loose teas. Supermarket aisles are filling up with more colorful (and more expensive) containers of flavored tea. Ready-to drink iced tea beverages’ labels are now touting more than just the very generic “tea”: rooibus, green tea, and other specialty iced beverages are coming out on the market en force, and are growing in popularity. Sales of tea in the U.S. have been growing at about 6% a year for the last several years, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., and they forecast that this rate of growth will continue over the next five years. So it is not surprising that foodservice sales of iced and hot tea has jumped from $2 billion to more than $4.5 billion in the past decade. In fact, foodservice sales of green tea alone grew from $2 million to an astonishing $90 million in the past five years.

One reason for this increase is the tea’s high profitability. Tea is one of the largest percentage revenue producers for most restaurants, and the wider the specialty selections offered, the more these establishments can charge for a cup of tea that costs them pennies. “The specialty tea industry is going through what the coffee industry did 10 years ago,” says Gerber of Tazo Tea. “Operators are getting savvy and know what options are available to the tea consumer today. If a tea drinker goes into a restaurant, a minor price variation will not sway them from purchasing a great premium tea.” Ahmed Rahim, founder of Numi Tea, agrees that tea has reached a new standing in restaurants: “Foodservice venues and specialty coffee retailers are realizing that consumers will happily pay the pennies difference to get good cup of tea instead of poor quality tea, and they will come back for good tea.”

Today's customers demand more than just hot tea. Numi has increased their foodservice iced tea line. and added two certified organic chai concentrates.
Foodservice makes up about 40% of Numi Tea’s business, with rapid growth in this area. “A number of foodservice establishments are adding a tea menu to their dessert menu, and we have designed tea menus specifically for a number of foodservice venues, including the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland.”

Rahim of Numi Tea has noticed that the level of tea knowledge within the foodservice industry has increased drastically within a short period of time. “Three years ago, people were asking us about the difference between green tea and black tea and herbal tisanes,” he says. “Now people ask about full leaf versus fannings, temperature of water for preparation, organic status [etc.]...” But he agrees we have a long way to go with tea education of foodservice operators. The Tea Council of Canada’s consumer research shows that 60% of tea drinkers in the country do not order tea in restaurants because it's not properly prepared. Educating foodservice operators on the benefits of serving and preparing quality tea is a key priority for the Council’s foodservice program, and many tea companies are providing their own training to their clients. For instance, Harney & Sons, a Connecticut-based tea company, provides a staff training video in addition to live staff training. “Most hotels and restaurants do not understand how to make tea or what boiling water is, or even how to buy tea,” says John Harney, owner. “They don't realize the small difference in the cost of low quality tea and good tea. They are much better today than a few years ago but we must keep on the education aspect for food service. We will keep innovating and pounding on doors.” Restaurants and hotels make up about 50% of Harney & Son’s tea business, and the company provides the tea to such high-end foodservice operations as Four Seasons, Waldorf Astoria, Plaza, Beverly Hills Hotel, and the Ritz Carlton Chicago.

Tea companies are seeing foodservice as a new way to grow and promote their brand. Foodservice has been a priority for Tazo tea since its beginning in 1994. They placed a large emphasis on growth in this arena in 2003 and plan to grow it even more in 2004. “Foodservice continues to be an outstanding growth area for Tazo. It's an important part of our branding mix,” Gerber says. He acknowledges the “introduction” factor of foodservice purchases as well. “So many of our current grocery customers have become customers because of their experience with foodservice.” He says Tazo’s greatest success in 2004 has been in securing distribution in national chains. “These chains, once comfortable with offering any tea, are now looking at consumption trends with U.S. consumers and seeing that they are looking for premium alternatives.”

Mighty Leaf's silky tea pouches and leather presentation books spell class to customers
dining out.
The foodservice operator now has more choices than ever before, and even with education it can be overwhelming when weighing what is best for their customers and do-able for their preparation crew and waitstaff. Should an establishment make the jump from the easy and quick tea bag to the more involved loose-leaf tea service along with its required accessories? Some restaurants inevitably won’t want to get into the perceived hassle of loose-leaf tea service. One tea company very focused on foodservice has found a compromise between the quick and ease of a tea bag and the quality of loose leaf. Along with regular loose tea offerings, Mighty Leaf Tea offers whole leaf teas already packed in individually-wrapped “tea pouches” - silky see-through pouches made from inert, food-grade nylon, (not paper, which imparts a taste to the tea.) “Its the best of both worlds,” says Gary Shinner, owner. The flow-through for the pouch is almost 100 percent, so the taste of full leaf tea really comes through - with no room for staff error. To continue to address the customers’ desires, Mighty Leaf has a caffeine color-coding system right on the tea bag packages as well, which are all either marked as “Caffeine-medium”, “Caffeine Light” or “Caffeine Free.”

In addition to a quality product and an educated staff, presentation of tea is key for the higher-end restaurant, because dining out is a form of entertainment. (This can be tea’s answer to the much-discussed “theater of espresso”). Many more tea companies are providing tea accessories specifically for tableside service, which are often so elegant that they give the customer the feeling that they are enjoying a pleasure reserved for only the wealthy, if only for part of an evening. Mighty Leaf supplies impressive leather Presentation Books, which allow tea pouches to be displayed and presented by the waiter. Available in six-unit and nine-unit assortment boxes, each presentation book comes with a custom menu on the inside panel. The operator can choose from a variety of 16 blends and Mighty Leaf will prepare a customized color, laminated menu of the tea that is offered. Service items also available from Mighty Leaf are a line of ceramic teapots with a built-in stainless steel infuser and a flip-top teapots. Numi offers a variety of tea caddies, including mahogany-veneered velvet lined tea chests, rustic wooden tea chests, and artful bamboo tea boxes. The Four Seasons Hotel receives a special two-cup teapot with filter from Harney & Sons, and a selection of teapots and accessories, table presentation caddies and trays. Tazo’s now offering canisters for tea storage, bamboo and other upscale presentation boxes for serving filterbags, and a ceramic tea caddy that can be placed tableside.

These fancy service items, along with high-quality tea served by an educated staff, are the ingredients for tea’s success in foodservice and beyond. Whether it be an introduction to at-home brewing of loose tea or to purchasing specialty iced beverages, or merely a ritual that the average diner will come to expect as part of their meal in a restaurant, specialty tea in foodservice has come a long way - and can carry the entire tea industry even further.

For more information on the foodservice teas mentioned in this article, visit them on the web. Tazo: www.tazo.com, Numi: www.numitea.com, Harney & Sons: www.harneyteas.com, Mighty Leaf: www.mightyleaf.com.


Tea & Coffee - December/January, 2004
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