Running a teahouse involves support systems that weren’t there even 10 years ago. Today, systems are better integrated to talk to each other or export reports to use in spreadsheets for analysis. Inventory in the point of sale (POS) system integrating with your online website is super helpful. There were several presentations at the World Tea Conference + Expo recently in Las Vegas, Nevada that brings these aspects together to make for efficient tools in this post-pandemic tea world.
How’s your organizational and financial skills? How about marketing and social media? All of it can seem daunting those first several years, but there are tools and folks who have already walked the multitude of paths in all these areas. For example, some tea business owners are driving growth in the tea industry through intent-based advertising and experiential retail.
Several Expo presentations covered the topic in detail.
“Operating Your Teashop with the Help of Technology”, a presentation given by Alfonso Wright and Jamila Wright of Brooklyn Tea covered many areas for efficiency – human resources management including payroll and scheduling, POS for sales reports and efficiency markers, website sales, inventory integration, delivery app authentication, and staff communication.
Automated inventory systems, some of which are free, some with monthly service fees (with better deals on an annual package) are helpful. We’ll explore the possibilities of full-scale operations, and the alternative piecemeal approach of exporting sales data to spreadsheets and analyzing the details yourself.
Across the board, you can spend hundreds of dollars per month on a system like Homebase that helps with payroll, scheduling and staff communication, with labor cost controls. Systems talk amongst themselves with inventories connecting, in the case for Brooklyn Tea Clover for the POS and Shopify for the website sales, which all provides you peace of mind, and performs details that you no longer need to do manually. The cream of the crop, we’d say, for a growing, profitable business. There’s the monthly fee on these systems, but there’s also the cost of the hardware (ipad, register, cash drawer, card readers) and depending on your budget, going with the full-scale operation out of the starting gates might be more than you need.
The Do-It-Yourself, cheaper alternative for those starting out (and for us even at year 10 during the pandemic) was Square as a POS and as our online webstore, with a percentage per transaction fee, no monthly fee, and we had a ticketing system that worked well enough as long as the Post-it Notes stuck to the tea brewer’s counter. There are systems now that print tickets in the kitchen for orders, making this somewhat easier. We had a spreadsheet that was loosely modified weekly on sales of specific tea inventories that we’d enter manually, and we had staff performing biweekly tea inventories by counting kilos and packets of each of our 100+ teas during slower times on the floor. A lot more involved for sure, but a monthly or bimonthly inventory still is something that needs to happen to help with future ordering of tea and supplies. With Shopventory, inventories are coordinated between your POS and website tool with less need for regular inventory by staff.
Staff communications and scheduling come together in Homebase as it integrates sales data, staffing, payroll, and data from credit cards on whether they are repeat customers and where they are coming from based on their credit card’s zip code. Homebase takes the emotions out of labor tracking and whether someone is clocking in on time or not, and can lead to reports where merit based incentives are determined by those reports. Using Clover for staff to clock in and Homebase to connect with payroll data you’ll get a nice projection of what payroll will be and scheduling suggestions.
We used a simpler, cheaper method with MyTimeStation for staff to clock in with biweekly exportable report on staff hours, exporting to a Google spreadsheet set up with predetermined automatic calculations. The MyTimeStation and Google Spreadsheet makes this a fairly simple process, and MyTimeStation is available as an ipad as well as iphone app that staff running errands can clock-in on remotely, and it’s free for 10 staff or less. Using GroupME for group texting for call-outs and shift swaps, we had a communication tool for immediate action requests.
On-boarding, which Homebase provides as part of their system at their highest monthly rate, includes employment forms and introductory processes and videos. Alfonso mentioned setting up Google Forms for onboarding processes, with integrated videos – a great solution that just takes time to produce, but so easy to update and share with staff through Google Drive.
Once you have those figures from your POS – what’s popular and selling, what has the highest or lowest profit margin – then you can turn to what to market to your customers. “Intent-Based Marketing” a presentation by Mackenzie Bailey of Steeped Content takes the information from our POS reports as top sellers – what customers are buying – and takes the effort behind the daily sales into what our marketing decisions on social media and web advertising should look like, with the data on zip codes from credit card payments showing where customers live allows you to focus your marketing in these areas on Google, Facebook, or your local weekly newspaper. A blog post focused on SEO search results for your site, and the product customers are buying through your POS, creates repeat interest and follow-up purchases.
Free or per-transaction system like Square, Google Workspace and Calendar, and MyTimeStation, are a good place to start, then move to the fee-based systems as budgets allow like Shopify, Clover, Homebase and Shopventory is a sure way grow a business smart and within budget when starting out, or even a few years in.
Ellen Kanner owned and operated a traditional true-to-origin teahouse in Portland, Maine with her husband for 12 years before moving the operation online while continuing to offer their longtime customers loose leaf tea and teaware, their Tea Tasting in a Box®, and tea tasting events and trips, while setting up tea programs at restaurants and cafés. She has traveled to origin for tea to South Korea, Japan, India, Taiwan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, as well as to Portugal. You can see more at www.dobrateame.com.
Without explanation, Iran’s Ministry of Agriculture has stopped registering contracts with Indian suppliers to export tea, rice, and other commodities. Registration is required before Indian goods can be offloaded in Iran.
Beginning in late November, Indian tea traders and traders exporting basmati rice noticed unusual delays in the routine registration of shipping contracts. Iranian officials did not announce or explain the delays, which led to speculation that the disruption was tied to ongoing street protests, a widening trade imbalance, or possibly ongoing discussions to resume oil exports from Iran to India.
Masih Keshavarz, speaking for Iran’s Rice Suppliers Commission, told IRIB News, “the ban will be lifted as soon as bilateral trade is balanced out or registers growth.”
The Business Standard reported that a fifth of India’s tea exports are shipped to Iran. Indian exporters told the newspaper, “the disruption in trade has been triggered by anti-hijab protests in Iran. Asa result, Iranian buyers, have been defaulting on payment obligations.”
Negotiations between the two countries to resume oil shipments are ongoing. India halted in 2019 due to EU and US economic sanctions designed to convince Iran to cease work on developing a nuclear arsenal.
Anshuman Kanoria, chairman of the Indian Tea Traders Association, said India’s Commerce Ministry, the Tea Board of India, India’s Foreign Trade office, and the Indian Embassy in Tehran are seeking an explanation. He writes that it is “futile to speculate on unconfirmed guesses.”
Previously registered shipments continue to arrive at Iranian ports.
| China Eases COVID Restrictions
China has eased travel restrictions and will permit people to enter public buildings without showing negative test results (except schools, hospitals, and nursing homes). Residents can travel freely within the country, but international travelers must still endure an eight-day quarantine on arrival. The country remains closed to tourists. The immediate impact of lifting restrictions will be a surge in infections due to a low vaccination rate.
| World Bank Report Reveals Investment Opportunities for Expanding India’s Cold Chain
Cold storage capacity in India has grown steadily. Still, a gap of 3.27 million metric tons for long-term storage of fresh produce remains, according to a World Bank report on investment opportunities presented at a government-hosted conference on developing India’s cooling sector.
The integrated development of the cold supply chain across India is severely lacking. The National Centre for Cold Chain Development (NCCD) estimates that close to $11.75 billion is required to develop the physical infrastructure and transport-related elements, presenting an investment opportunity to modernize the retail end of the cold chain requiring $1.3 to $1.9 billion.
Building out that infrastructure will spur the consumption of chilled ready-to-drink tea and make it practical to sell refrigerated concentrates and store perishable green teas.
| PLUS THIRST has completed its initial assessment of human rights in the global tea sector and is now seeking to understand the root causes. THIRST founder and CEO Sabita Banerji says the non-profit will conduct confidential surveys of tea producers during the New Year. In this episode, she discusses the process with South Asia Correspondent Aravinda Anantharaman.
Andrew McNeill, Business Development Director at Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea, says that stay-at-home tea drinkers exploring specialty teas are eager to share the experience of tea discovery face-to-face. In December, the 20-year-old tea merchant and tea house relocated to a 2200 sq. ft. combination tea shop, tearoom, warehouse, and online fulfillment center.
Caption: Kai Steerman, left, enjoys a tasting led by Zhuping Hodge
Listen to the Interview
Seven Cups Tea House Carefully Crafts a Cultural Experience
Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea is typical of well-established shops that survived the pandemic. The direct-trade retailer is 20 years old, located in a second-tier city, and generates revenue online and in-store from packaged sales, tea service, and wholesale supply to coffee shops, cafes, hotels, and restaurants.
Packaged tea has fared well since 2019. A spike in sales has jammed tea cupboards with direct-from-origin and exotic teas purchased online. The growing consumer preference for better-tasting tea favors retailers with quality selections, including herbal infusions. Retailers are remodeling to promote in-shop sampling as it encourages social interaction and repeat business among enthusiasts eager to explore new origins and styles as they learn from experts.
Seven Cups founder Austin Hodge says, “The business model of our tea house has always been to provide an authentic and high quality product and customer experience. We see the opportunity to expand our tea house is a validation of this model. We firmly believe that high quality tea isn’t just compelling to a niche market of connoisseurs, it’s readily enjoyed by everyday, working class people.”
“When you enter a traditional teahouse, in China or Tucson, you step into a cultural experience that separates you from your daily problems. It’s a teahouse tradition for tea drinkers to be treated with respect and dignity, whatever their outside problems might be,”says Hodge.
Dan Bolton: Every successful retailer has plans to expand to a new 2200 sq. ft. location. What led Seven Cups to relocate?
Andrew McNeill: So, for us, it was realizing that we were hitting a point where we were at capacity. We realized about five years ago that we had to start making a plan. We were sharing a strip mall with several other popular businesses, and it’s great to have the exposure to being next to other popular businesses. But if people can’t park there, it’s a problem. And being there for 20 years, we realized that if people hadn’t found us yet, in this location, they probably weren’t gonna find us.
We were fortunate in that we had enough of a unique draw in our local area, where people sought us out from far away. We weren’t dependent on foot traffic to drive business and awareness. But that said, after moving to a location with better visibility, we’ve already seen an enormous response.
You can do everything right with your social media, tending to your tribe, and getting the word out in your community; these are all great and worthy things to do. But finding the right location that’s going to be visible and accessible to your customers can’t be substituted.
So, location still does matter.
Dan: Did you decide to buy or lease?
Andrew: We moved from being a renter to a buyer. And, of course, the advantages of being a renter versus an owner will depend on where a business operates. In our case in Tucson, we saw pretty strong advantages to being an owner, especially with rents increasing; given the economic climate in the last three years, it was clear at the time. Things are shifting now, as they always are, but it was time to move in terms of favorable lending conditions and property valuations.
That said, we spent a long time finding this place. It was a unicorn location. We knew we were looking for something unusual. In our case, a big part of what we wanted was to consolidate the wholesale and online fulfillment with the tea house. There are obvious advantages and efficiencies in getting your operation under one roof. The challenge there, of course, is that there are very few tea house-restaurant-retail spaces and slash warehouse-office spaces in one building. You must build to suit, to create something like that.
Ultimately, the property that Austin found was an off-market building, a market space that had been abandoned since the 80s. It was not listed. Our realtor did us a real favor by proposing an offer to the owners.
Starting negotiations that way, we were fortunate to find a space that could be reshaped into exactly what we needed.
Dan: COVID created new consumer behaviors leading shops to adapt. Your business does an amazing job educating customers and introducing them to suppliers and producing regions. Will you talk briefly about how this new shop accommodates online buyers and how you approach teaching with sampling?
Andrew: I think we’re still in the midst of that change. During COVID, we’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. And our consumer experiences have been focused on the home and consumption in the home, the individual, and the family.
And so we’ve gone from buying stuff to buying experiences. When you’re building out a retail space, it’s very important to focus on the experience and the experience of the product. This is something that, for us, historically, has been the case in our tea room, in the decades past, is been only a small part of our business, but it’s been an integral part of our business. Because what it is and what it provides is that experience, it’s a guided experience in an environment conducive to it.
When people experience the possibility of what tea can taste like and what satisfaction it can provide when brewed with intentional and beautiful surroundings, this ultimately drives a whole customer lifecycle that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Regarding parts of our business, the tearoom is just about 10 or 15% of revenue. So, it’s not a significant part. But the marketing power of providing this experience for folks, that face-to-face interaction with your customer, and the feedback given back to us as a business is invaluable.
We certainly missed that during COVID. And we’ve seen that people coming out of the pandemic haze are interested in having that interaction from the consumer side. So, we’re happy to be in the fortunate position of opening a new Tea House experience when people are just becoming more comfortable coming out and seeking such experiences. Of course, it’s got to be great; it’s got to satisfy those expectations both in terms of the educational experience and the sensory experience.
Dan: Tell us about the tasting experience.
Andrew: Tasting is a central part of the experience; there’s a tearoom, but there are also individual tasting tables. So, these tables are not a place where people would sit down with their own tea, but where they would sit down with the shop owners or some of the staff to have a conversation and chat about tea. And, of course, that conversation is an organic educational experience where people can come up with their own questions. That drives the discussions and the whole experience of tasting this tea and understanding what’s behind it. Of course, it helps us that education flows the other way because we understand how consumers enjoy this tea. We’ve built out places in the new store for people to have those conversations in different parts of the building.
Dan: How many tasting tables are there in the store?
Andrew: So we have three different tea tables. The tea room itself is about 700 square feet, which is about the same as we had in our old space. The added space gives us a little more flexibility on where we placed the retail section of the business. In the old store retail sort of ran through the tea room, so you could be having your tea experience in the tea room and people would be walking in back of you along the walls looking at teapots. Here it’s a little more of a private experience. There’s a clear separation between the retail area, which takes up about 500 sq. ft. and the tea room. And so people feel a little more comfortable with getting up close and personal with teapots and jars of tea, while having conversations with our staff over the retail items.
Simultaneously it makes the tea experience when you’re sitting down all that more special and private and focused.
Dan: Let’s talk about innovations in the back end of the store.
Andrew: Wholesale is not the profit leader of our business. It comes along with online retail, the tea house, part of a broad revenue mix. So, for us, that makes consolidation more important because we’re all serving multiple roles. You can have conversations not only with different people but with different people as they’re serving different roles. It is also very valuable in terms of efficiencies for building out the wholesale part. A free-standing building enabled us to build the ventilation and cooling system to suit tea storage. It’s of utmost importance to take care and preserve the quality of the tea from season to season. We’re a vendor that focuses on one lot per year. We do not blend 2021 tea with teas from 2022. Selling is seasonal, dated by year, so you must ensure the tea is holding up. As tea ages, people are going to know that it’s aging. We make sure that we’re doing our best to preserve its quality. A freestanding building also means there are no intrusions of smells that will contaminate, there’s no flavor creep from, say, other products that are around. It also gives us the advantage in terms of compliance to have one FDA-inspected facility instead of two, same for health department inspections locally. Being able to focus on getting things just right was one of our build-to-suit goals
Dan: Online you offer an interesting version of sampling option.
Andrew: As fresh tea arrives; we offer graded samplers. This is an experiential product. This year we did five different grades of Longjing (Dragon Well) from the same factory. These teas are grown in the same garden, harvested during the same season, and processed by the same tea maker. You can taste the differences from the earliest pluck of their premiere, early spring Ji Pin (ultra grade) Da Fo Longjing (2022), and compare as the season progresses, tasting how the leaf changes and how differences in plucking and processing change as the harvest progresses. You can brew each tea separately for casual drinking or compare different teas side by side to calibrate your taste buds.
Dan: Younger people coming to tea are seeking distinctive taste. I tell people it’s as simple as this; your grandmother drinks tea — her grandsons and daughters taste tea. She seeks consistency in a brand that spans 50 years of her life. Her grandchildren are looking for something novel, identifying flavor notes and asking, where was it grown? How was this tea made? Why does it taste this way?
Andrew: Yeah, they are looking for an experience every time. I think that’s an excellent way of putting it and describing the generational shift. Many younger consumers are not drinking a whole lot of tea. We have a subscription service, and people said, “this is great, my only complaint is I’m getting too much tea.’
People want to have an intentional, amazing, profound experience every time. If you create that brush with the sublime with your products, service, and relationship with your customer, then you’re really in tune with what folks want.
There’s a sophistication with the consumer now since people can learn so much so fast about the supply chain. They will ask those questions to satisfy their own moral, philosophical demands for an ethically managed supply chain, but also to satisfy the sort of epicurean desires of being able to taste the terroir, the provenance of this product.
With people coming in who have a high degree of knowledge, what they’re looking for is not only answers to those questions but a conversation around those questions. So it’s not just being able to provide that information but being able to have a conversation around that information.
Because people are used to having this conversation, say on social media and over long distances over the internet, and getting this information directly from growers when they come into their local tea shop, they want to be able to continue sharing their own preferences and learn more about your own sourcing approach and just delighting in a conversation about something that both of you love.
Taste of China (experiential tasting)
Discover the wonders of Chinese tea as you taste a selection of high-quality teas featuring different origins and processing methods. Learn about different types of tea and their traditional health benefits. Great for parties and special events (baby showers, client/employee events, birthday parties, graduation parties, cultural experience days, etc.). Light snacks will be served with tea (1 snack per person included in the price).
Cost: $18 per seat (minimum 6 seats, maximum 30 seats per event, no child pricing), 18% minimum gratuity not included Length: up to 90 minutes.
This fascinating book illuminates the all too often overlooked tea region of Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. The authors draw on the letters of James Taylor, pioneer and founding father of the Ceylon tea industry, to explore the life of a Scottish migrant who, through experimentation and determination, forged a new industry out of the ruins of the coffee blight. This uniquely complete collection of correspondence reveals this pivotal time in tea history through the eyes, thoughts, and actions of a key player. Some of the standards (two leaves and a bud) and machines that Taylor developed are still in use worldwide today.
We learn about the decline of the former plantation crops over several years and the fight to find a viable replacement: tea. James Taylor’s letters home to family, to local friends, and newspaper articles of the time are explored and expounded upon by the authors to offer a historical account by someone for whom the creation of tea was not just a vocation but an avocation too. Uniquely the story is told “as is.” That is to say, it is told in and of its time with explanation and exploration of the who, how, and why things were as they were, centered around the direct views, thoughts, and experiences of James Taylor. Unlike other works that look at this period, this book seeks not to offer judgment or rear-view mirror thinking but merely to show us what was happening at the time and why. First-hand accounts serve to explain and illuminate the period and the people as they were, as they lived, as they thought and spoke. This is the story and experiences of one man who lived through and shaped the birth of an industry. Not because he set out to change the world or get rich but because he was there because he worked with and in response to the situations, the place, and the time in which he found himself.
More broadly, this book also explores the legacy of Scottish education and the thought that the Scottish diaspora played such a significant role in the colonial world, particularly in Ceylon. It also looks at the legacy and, indeed, rediscovery of the legacy of James Taylor and his place in both the history of Sri Lanka and the Ceylon tea industry.
Although interesting, thought-provoking, and generally engaging to read, there are times when the reading can be a bit dry. Perhaps a case of two different writing styles. But push through those dry bits, and you’ll be riveted by the fascinating history within. TeaBookClub members agree that this is an essential book on your tea bookshelf that explores important tea history.
I’m really glad I read as much as I did, it seems like it’s very important history in the history of tea. – Audrey, USA
It being a first-hand account is what really made it interesting – Michaela, Austria.
I found it refreshing that the authors didn’t give Lipton much airspace. This was a book about James and what he did, achieved, and his life. I really appreciated that within the context of Ceylon at that time. – Taraya, Canada
It had very interesting and very boring parts but overall very good to read. Some parts were easier to read than others, maybe because there were two different writers. – Mariella, Netherlands
Fascinating that some of his machine designs are still being used today – Mariella, Netherlands
Based in the UK, The Tea Book Club is an international group of tea lovers and readers who meet up virtually every month to discuss tea books. If you’d like to join us for the next read, visit teabookclub.org or @joinTeaBookClub on Instagram.
Tea & Empire
Goodreads: This book brings to life for the first time the remarkable story of James Taylor, ‘father of the Ceylon tea enterprise’ in the nineteenth century. Publicly celebrated in Sri Lanka for his efforts in transforming the country’s economy and shaping the world’s drinking habits, Taylor died in disgrace and remains unknown to the present day in his native Scotland. Using a unique archive of Taylor’s letters written over a 40-year period, Angela McCarthy and Tom Devine provide an unusually detailed reconstruction of a British planter’s life in Asia at the high noon of empire.
Carman Allison, vice president of thought leadership at Nielsen IQ in Toronto, describes the unusual combination of slow growth and job gains set against rising interest rates and sharply higher inflation as a “consumer recession.”
“We are all trained to understand that you need two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction for a country to be officially in a recession. But we also know that by the time that actually happens, a lot of the economy is already in a recession,” he explains.
| The International Tea Academy Awards its First “Leafies” | Sales of Herbal Infusions are Expected to Double this Decade
| PLUS Canadian Economist Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, sees a lot of positives for the tea industry but cautioned that inflation is an economic disease that will linger. Supply chain challenges remain. He said the macro-dynamics around commodities are getting more complicated, adding, “The fall is not going to be an easy one.”