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...

Monday, 2 February 2009

Let it snow

Although stunningly beautiful, London is excrutiatingly ineffective in the snow. Footfall at the teashop was around 60% down on an average Monday. Not a great start to the week and it is expected to get worse before it gets better. We operated with skeleton staff and closed at 2pm, which is better than most of the businesses in the area as they could not even muster an operational team. On a positive note, people do tend to wear the oddest attire in adverse weather conditions. The array of Wellington boots, furry hats, and all-in-one ski suits were enough to ensure that the day was fun, which helped counteract the painfully slow trade. A further positive is that the weather seemed to bring a certain camaraderie between the plucky souls brave enough to make the effort: I managed 'good morning' to three complete strangers during my walk to the Tube. All was lost however once below ground, as it reverted to form exacerbated by the irregular running of trains. A couple of scuffles, the hurling of abuse and lots of pushing and shoving ensured it was Monday morning business as usual. Happy days.

Looking forward to seeing what the weather has in store for tomorrow. Not holding out for a vast change however. I may even get round to reviewing a tea, which would be nice....

PS The fact that we do not have any tables and chairs outside does not appear to be impacting our business.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

More bureaucracy please, we're British

I hate bureaucracy and I hate it with a passion. I hate it if I witness it from afar and I hate it even more when it's closer to home. I hate the fact that it stifles invention and I hate the fact that it always seems to be a hapless bureaucrat with zero grip on reality who is enforcing it. And what I hate (the last one I promise) even more than bureaucracy itself is a government spouting absolute nonsense about 'entrepreneurial Britain' and 'small and medium sized enterprises being the lifeblood of the economy' and then doing all it can to suck them into a quagmire of endless form-filling, box-ticking, flag-waving etc etc. For example, I got a phone call from the Office of National Statistics enquiring why we hadn't completed a form informing them of how many job vacancies we had on 1st January 2009. I explained that we were two people short of a full team and we didn't have the time. They didn't get the joke and threatened to fine us if we didn't complete the form!

Now to the real bone of contention: I just want to run a tea business; selling great tea to anyone who cares to join me. I have done this for almost two years and for said period, I have placed a small number of tables and chairs outside (which is a pedestrianised area) for anyone brave enough to take a chance on the British weather. Today however, I have been told that we are violating City of London's strict regulations on outdoor seating (despite the government spouting more nonsense about trying to make Britain fall in love with the outdoor cafe culture) and that we are in line for a fine. Oh yes, 2009 is the year of the fine, which is fine because as a business we are doing fine!

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Back to what we know

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.

C.S. Lewis

With economies crumbling, governments floundering, banks not lending, consumers not consuming, I have decided to begin this blog with a quote. Its relevance? Since the coming together of the now era-defining words which are 'crunch' and 'credit' our customers cups of tea appear to be getting larger and their books longer. Gone are the halcyon days of a customer ordering 'A Jasmine Silver Needle and a slice of carrot cake to go, please' and here to stay are the torturous words 'An English Breakfast with an extra cup and and a pot of hot water on the side please'. This is swiftly followed by 'Do you happen to know where the Jobs Section of City AM is?' and 'Do you have a cushion for this chair?'.

In times of need people often take comfort in all things familiar so we have stocked up on English Breakfast tea, digestive biscuits and are now showing reruns of Only Fools & Horses (for our US readers think The Golden Girls (sorry Del)). We think that we're here for the long haul so may as well make the most of it.