Wednesday, 10 March 2010

High Tea Meets High Fashion

Yet again an eventful couple of months have been and gone in the blink of eye. Of particular noteworthiness, is that Tea was asked to provide tea for Charlotte Olympia's A/W 2010 Collection held at The Langham Hotel in London. We duly obliged as Tea's association (collaboration is stretching the meaning of the word beyond recognition) with creative talent can only be a good thing. It transpired that Charlotte is a big fan of Tea and her fiance is actually a regular at our teashop and offered a welcome respite from the super glamorous, incredibly tall (a combination of genes and shoes) ladies at said event. In a surreal manly bubble, surrounded by air kissing and flashing bulbs, we spent most of our time discussing in detail the merits of a roast beef sandwich including the bread to beef ratio, type of bread, preferred condiment and whether medium rare is suitable for a sandwich. Indeed we only broke from the wonderful world of beef to pose for the flashing bulbs and to receive air kisses from afar.

Although a wonderful afternoon, I was supposed to be working and having scoured the guestlist (this is the work part by the way) which included the great and the good of the fashion world, I can only conclude that some of the most influential people in fashion are starting the day with a cup of our tea and it is therefore only a matter of time before Tea is gracing the front covers of Vogue, Elle and Vanity Fair. And now for the star of the show (I am happy for tea to play second fiddle on this occasion), the shoes:

They are indeed beautiful shoes and a great time was had by all. I can't wait for the S/S 2011 collaboration!

Monday, 25 January 2010

Where do I begin?

I am at a complete loss as to where to start this post or what to include. To say that the last six months have been eventful is like saying the universe is quite big. The highlights include:

  • Securing investment to launch an assault on the retail tea market
  • Winning 'Best Performance by a First Time Entrant' at the oscars of the fine food world (2009 Great Taste Awards)
  • Exhibiting at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair (see below)
  • Visiting Darjeeling to meet the real heroes of the tea world
  • Developing a range of whole-leaf teabags

The dilemma that I have is that each of the above bullets is a post in itself. Indeed the trip to Darjeeling could be a short story. I shall therefore have to up the ante in terms of my blogging which, to date, has been sporadic at best and down right shoddy at worst. As I must start somewhere, I shall dedicate this blog to a general update closely followed (I promise) by blogs covering the specific points mentioned above and whatever else I feel may be of interest.

In general, the last six months have been challenging. There certainly appears to be more positivity from our customers although I do not see the halcyon days of 2008 returning any time soon. However, every cloud has a silver lining and instead of wallowing in self pity, I took the opportunity to review the strategic outlook for the business. It was my opinion that there was going to be limited opportunity to grow the teashop model so I decided to look at other areas where value could be added without a huge amount of investment. I think this is known as 'the course of least resistance' in business parlance. So I have spent the last six months developing our products, processes, packaging, and contacts to pave the way for our teas to be sold via third-party retailers. The result is that we now have a number of our award-winning teas available through carefully-selected foodhalls and delis. The feedback from retailers and end users alike has been so positive that I really feel that this could be a hugely successful strand to our business.

Although I sit here now more positive about the future than I have been for some time, I am not so naive as to think that we are completely out of the woods. Developing new revenue streams does help spread risk although we are still very much at the mercy of the global economy and my view is that there is still a long way to go before confidence returns. Even when confidence does return, I think that it is going to be a more prudent confidence than the one we have previously seen, which is not such a bad thing. It is therefore imperative for a business like Tea to ensure that we continue to offer our customers the best value and quality that money can buy together with exceptional customer service while continuing to innovate. In short, we need to give our customers several very good reasons to continue to spend their very hard-earned cash with us. If we can do this, the future should be bright. If not then we shall probably die a slow and painful death but such a macabre notion has no place in this blog or my thoughts.

I started this blog asking 'where do I begin?' and I finish it asking where it should end. The answer? Right here.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Did tea become lazy?

I once again find myself apologising for the lackadaisical manner in which I tend to my blog. On this occasion however, I do have a valid excuse: I recently got married. Anyway, enough of that and back to the subject of tea.

When my wife and I set up Tea, we didn't do so becasue we thought tea was going to be the next big thing or, as I've heard many food and beverage experts profess, that tea was going to be hot. We actually set up Tea firstly because we both love tea, secondly because we could not get a decent cup on the go while working in the City of London and thirdly because we didn't think we were alone in this thinking. So Tea was effectively born out of frustration at the lack of tea-focused alternatives to the living, breathing coffee shops which were multiplying at unprecendented levels in London at the time. Coffee seemed to be having it all of its own way and tea was becoming a second-class citizen. In Britain? Surely not!

This got me thinking about how coffee had gone from thick, bitter, black stuff served in polystyrene cups to an aspirational consumer product that was being feted by city slickers and celebrities alike. My conclusion: coffee, or rather the coffee industry, made itself sexy. They also quite cleverly invented coffee-related words and expressions that made the wildly naive consumer think that what they were buying into was something more than coffee: a lifestyle. Furthermore, the coffee-based beverages that they were purchasing had such sophisticated names and required such complicated equipment (indeed a dedicated barista) that they could under no circumstance be made by the average consumer in the comfort of their own home.

So as coffee was going through the mother of all makeovers, busy wooing the fashionistas and opinion-formers alike, what was tea doing? Tea basically sat back and watched as if blissfully unaware to the fact that consumers were deserting tea in their droves for skinny lattes, cappucinos and mochas. So did tea become lazy? Let's face it, tea could be forgiven for resting on its laurels. It has been around in some shape or form for millennia and consumed in its current form in the UK for more than 350 years. Certainly there was talk of speciality teas, antioxidants, a British institution etc but there was no cohesive strategy to enable tea to compete on a level with its old foe.

To be honest, there is still no real cohesive strategy although there are an increasing number of innovative tea companies attempting to redress the balance with new flavours, brewing techniques and equipment which are all helping to connect with a new generation of tea drinkers. Of course, there is still room for vintage afternoon-tea parties, paper doylies, bunting, and chintz and there always will be but there also needs to be innovation. I would love to see more tearooms offering a superior tea experience with slick service in great surroundings for the discerning commuter and I truly believe that this will be the case. I would also love to see the more innovative tea brands truly compete with the large household names that account for 99.99999% of all tea sold. To be fair, I am seeing a number of the large tea companies develop new and innovative advertising campaigns although the products advertised appear very familiar. Come on guys, you can do it!

In the meanwhile, we can only hope that the tea innovators continue to innovate and we do not lose an entire generation to coffee.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Happy birthday to me, from Tea

I wish I were penning this blog from a beach in the Bahamas. Alas I am not. It comes direct from my living room having spent Sunday morning dreaming up some weird and wonderful ideas on how to maximise opportunities at Tea. The reason for the brainstorm: Tea celebrated its 2nd birthday on Friday and amid all of the pats on the back and congratulatory hand shakes, there was a part of me which thought '2 years of planning and raising finance, 2 years since opening, several hundred sleepless nights, blood, sweat, almost tears and from what I can gather, more of the same to come'.

We always envisaged Tea as having the potential to span several areas within the world of tea with the teashops providing a showcase for our brand, products and ethos. To some degree this has worked with a number of opportunites coming our way as a direct result of having a high-street presence. I am not aware of another tea company with a high-street, online and retail offer. Having a high-street presence does however have its downside as it is a never-ending battle and drain on resources to keep ahead of the competition and ensure that consumers are spending their hard-earned cash with you. In addition to the customer element, there is staffing, health and safety, administrative duties etc. All of which conspire against your time and energy to ensure that outside of the teashop, there is little time to create the value and fulfil the potential that Tea has. In short, running a teashop in the current climate is pretty damn tough and exceedingly frustrating hence the Sunday morning brainstorming session.

If only a few hours on a Sunday morning were the panacea, we would have done it a long time ago. We do however have a clearer understanding of where we would like to get to and how we think we are going to get there. I say 'think' as from experience, regardless of how good the planning stage is, once plans get underway and are influenced by real life, they have a habit of changing quite radically from those highlighted at the outset. It is important to continuously review strategy, plans, goals and expectations, as they will change as time goes by. I suspect that moving Tea to the next stage will be as difficult as conception, inception and the first two years of business, which is why it important to try and enjoy the ride regardless of how choppy it may get.

Let's face it, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

It's been a while

I can't quite believe that my last blog was back in February. I apologise profusely to my two fans. I promise to be less remiss in the future and post at least one blog per month. Since the last blog, things have gone a little crazy at Tea: we have been working on our spring/summer food menu, provided tea for the goodie bags at a fashion-related press day, hired new staff, lost old staff, installed a dedicated tea retail unit (images to follow), developing international delivery for our online teashop (exact date to follow), and negotiating the lease on our second teashop. We are hopeful that a combination of the aforementioned will ensure that we are well placed to ride out the current climate and emerge as a stronger business when things inevitably pick up.

In difficult times, some businesses choose to scale back and concentrate on the core business, which is a strategy that can work well. At Tea however, we have decided to invest in the business and try and spread our risk by looking at generating new revenue streams. Time will tell whether this strategy has worked but the intitial signs are encouraging especially in terms of our retail sales as a direct result of the retail unit. We are very hopeful that the launch of international delivery will help us to meet the online sales targets that we have set for the coming 12 months. We receive several emails per day regarding international delivery so are confident that there is a demand for our teas overseas. Again, time will tell whether we are successful in this area but if you don't try.....

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Gone Fishing!

As the UK economy continues to implode and the mighty Sterling stoops to new lows, it would be easy to put up the 'gone fishing' sign and head off to warmer climes until the dark clouds of recession make way for the bright lights of recovery. This however would not be in keeping with the stiff upper lip we tea-drinking British are famous for. I agree that the current environment is throwing up certain challenges and it is a daily battle to extract hard-earned cash from consumers' pockets. It is safe to say that the days of frivolity are gone and I suspect that even when the bright lights begin to shine once more, the halcyon days of old shall not return in their entirety. It is therefore imperative for businesses to focus on value and by value I do not mean discounting but ensuring that customers appreciate and understand that they are receiving value for money in terms of product, service and environment. In my opinion, the knee-jerk reaction of many retailers to go down the heavy discounting route is a false economy and will only throw up issues in the future with regards to brand devaluation.

What this environment has forced a lot of small businesses to do is look very closely at how efficient they are. In boom times, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and spend turnover at the expense of profit. In this environment, such a strategy would be suicide. At Tea, we are in the process of cutting costs through driving efficiency and reviewing our supplier base. We intend to greet the bright lights of recovery in good enough shape to take advantage of the opportunites that are invariably going to be ripe for the picking.

Good luck and may the leaf be with you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

24 little hours

Today was far better than yesterday in terms of footfall although still around 20% down on an average Tuesday. It appears that although the snow has stopped falling, the aftermath of the silent assassin's reign of terror is still proving an obstacle for some London commuters. In an outward show of defiance, we cranked up the heaters, steamed up the windows and ensured that our customers had a welcome respite from the cold.

All the extra heat got me thinking of spring and with the changing of the season comes a change in the menu. So I locked myself in my tasting lab, which encroaches under St. Paul's Churchyard, and began experimenting with some iced teas. Our first attempt at iced tea (summer 2008) produced some startling results; our Lemon Green outsold the mighty Coca-Cola on a daily basis. I am therefore keen to get the ball rolling to see if we can repeat such a feat. And just to explain what a feat this was; we UK-based tea drinkers do not really do iced tea, unlike our US friends, who consume gallons of the stuff, so it was
indeed a pleasant surprise .

Watch this space for how we do in 2009! For now, all this talk of iced tea is making me thirsty...