Sunday 18 February 2018

Why tea shops are one of the fastest growing new businesses

The humble cup of tea is enjoying a revival, and speciality tea shops are on the rise.

Martin Mehner of House of Tea
Martin Mehner of House of Tea
Le Palais des Thes

Fiona McBennett

The coffee industry in Ireland may be booming - but its humble rival, tea, is experiencing something of a renaissance.

The current health and fitness craze sweeping across the nation, due to RTE's Operation Transformation, means that tea has re-emerged as the drink of choice for those looking to cut down on caffeine and calories, with exotic varieties, such as oolong and green tea, packed with antioxidants and flavour.

Offering high-quality teas that are far from your average supermarket teabag dunked in a mug of hot water, tea shops are on the rise across Ireland and ensuring that we hold onto our reputation of being a tea-drinking nation.

Martin Mehner, managing director of House of Tea, says that while specialist tea shops have always been popular in his native Germany and across Europe, they are a relatively new concept in Ireland.

"There are plenty of tea rooms here that serve a regular cup of tea with a scone and that's it. However, we are different, as we represent all major tea-growing areas in the world. I would never have dreamed of opening this business in Germany, as there are a lot of tea shops there already."

Mr Mehner initially began his business in 2004, selling tea leaves online. In 2007, he opened his first tea shop and now runs two premises, in Rathmines and Blackrock. Both shops sell tea leaves and tea accessories, as well as serving a wide range of teas and food. Mr Mehner says that he has made sure to tailor his business to the Irish market.

"We've had to find out what Irish people like that may be different to other countries, for example, the milk part of it. We try to introduce people to new teas without straying too far from what they are familiar with.

"In Rathmines, we find that our customers mainly like to stick to black teas, but our Blackrock customers are more adventurous. They have often heard of different types and are curious to try them."

With such a large selection of teas on sale, having a good knowledge of the product is utterly essential, according to Mr Mehner.

"If you go to a wine shop, you expect the staff to know about the wine, and customers are more inclined to buy something when a staff member is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about what they are selling. We can name the origin of every tea we have and we spend time tasting different teas. I have travelled to India and China for my own education, and I think it does show when a customer comes in and staff know what they are talking about."

Both shops regularly hold events such as tastings and Chinese tea ceremonies, and while it could be presumed that coffee shops provide stiff competition, Mr Mehner says his business attracts a different type of customer.

"In a coffee shop, the customer wants their drink made fast and served to them there and then. Here, we make sure to brew our teas according to the correct brewing time and then serve them.

"There are also many more choices on offer in a tea shop. While a coffee shop may have two or three different varieties of coffee on offer, we have over 120 teas."

Siobhan Scully and her husband Colin brought international tea company, Palais des Thés, to Dublin six years ago, having stumbled across a branch while visiting friends in Norway.

Impressed by the quality and packaging of the teas, as well as the company's emphasis on protecting the environment and ensuring the sustainability of the crop, the couple travelled to its headquarters in Paris to meet with company founder, Francois-Xavier Delmas.

"Before we found this company, we were your average tea-drinkers and always bought our tea in the supermarket. Since then, our whole world has opened up and we are now drinking many wonderful teas and feeling the benefits.

"We were really taken by the business, so we decided we would open up a store in Dublin and see how it went. It has been a struggle because at the time we opened, Ireland went off a cliff economically, but we are still here and have been clawing our way back."

The shop, based on Wicklow Street, sells over 300 different types of tea and supplies restaurants around the city, where their tea leaves are used to flavour everything from cocktails to ice cream. Scully now works as a part-time director in the company and says that people's interest in high-quality tea has grown.

"The tea industry is as diverse as the wine business, which I was shocked to discover at first. The market is definitely growing. Lifestyles are changing and people are becoming a lot more health-conscious now.

"Tea is a wonderful product; green tea has to be one of the healthiest beverages on the planet.

"There are some who turn to tea as an alternative to drinking wine and will treat themselves to one of our Grand Crus teas instead of an expensive bottle of wine. We have found from our tastings that people love to be educated and appreciate a quality product."

Scully says that working in the tea industry is something she enjoys and that, all things going well, the company would love to open more branches in the future.

"It's a lovely business to be a part of. We make samples of tea during the day and it's so nice that the first thing you are doing when a customer comes in, is handing them a cup of tea. People can be apprehensive about trying a new tea but it's all about getting to know your customers and asking the right questions.

"It is an education - but we have found that our customers have grown with us over the years," says Ms Scully.

While tea could perhaps be associated with an older client base, a tea-based drink - known as bubble tea - has taken the younger market by storm. Karl Mulvee and his business partner, Ronan Murphy, were the first to bring the Taiwanese drink to Ireland in 2012, with their shop, Bubblicity.

"I spotted the product in the UK and thought that it was really fun and that it would work well here in Ireland," says Mr Mulvee. "We see our product as being more like a non-alcoholic cocktail or a milkshake, rather than a tea drink. It's served chilled, with a straw and the chewy bubbles that give the drink its name are made from root vegetable.

"All our drinks are vegetarian-friendly and lactose-free and we have powdered teas and freshly brewed teas that we mix together to make fun flavours, such as coconut or almond-infused tea."

The business now has two retail premises, in the George's Street Arcade and on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin, and with a raft of celebrity fans that includes Amy Huberman and Kathryn Thomas, the drink's popularity is continuing to grow.

"Being the first bubble tea shop in Ireland, we didn't really know what to expect, even though we did lots of research," admits Mr Mulvee. "We were surprised by the amount of foreign nationals who would have had the product in their home country and were already big fans. For some Irish people, it may be a novelty just to try one but we have also had customers drive from Cork and Belfast, just to have our teas."

The company regularly caters for hen parties and weddings and Mr Mulvee says he's happy to be offering a varied and interesting alternative to standard tea and coffee drinks.

"We like being individual and while coffee shops are everywhere, I really don't think our product is competing against them at all, as we are so different.

"Ours might be a product that you would treat yourself to and while there may only be a small selection of coffee available in a coffee shop, with our product, you can mix and match to your heart's content."

Sunday Indo Business

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