Plight of the Tea Entrepreneur

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip to China. I was sent a ticket by a Chinese corporation that is thinking about opening a chain of retail tea shops. Their plan is to create a ‘tea beverage’ and they want a trustworthy supplier. The couple that was fueling that idea, one was American and the other had lived in the US for a decade. American brands are popular in China and they felt that they could appeal to a younger Chinese demographic, not wanting to be identified with the older generation, by creating tea beverages. In theory, if they used good quality tea that could be discerned in the beverage, they could advance their customers to better quality tea. I have heard this plan for years here, that some consumers will come to appreciate quality tea through flavored teas, ready to drink iced tea, chai lattes, and a long list of beverages that now use tea as an ingredient.

I have also heard that Americans/Westerners would never appreciate/pay for good quality tea. I read an article written by a respected German broker published in a trade magazine 6 or 7 years ago saying that it was a waste of time selling the best quality tea, and it was better and more profitable to stay with good middle of the road teas, mediocritea. Our experience has been that once anyone has had a cup of quality tea, Westerner or otherwise, that is all it takes. I don’t think you get to fine wines through wine coolers.

I continue to read about failing tea businesses across the US.  I really feel bad for them. Starting your own business is a very difficult experience whether you succeed or fail. For most of us it is putting everything we have on the line. If you have been listening to the hype for the last number of years tea is the place to be if you want to get into an exploding market. All you need is a good plan, some basic business sense, and a good supplier and you are in business. So why are so many failing? Mediocritea?

Everyone is blaming the economy, and yes, the economy is tough. Try getting financing for growth or inventory, close to impossible for most of us for the last couple of years. I don’t think though that is the core of the problem. I think it is because the quality of most of the tea available is mediocritea, and no amount of flavoring, blending, tea bag innovation, or marketing is going to change that. If your customers are not saying wow, when they taste your tea, you have a problem. The problem only gets worse as the consumer gets more educated and sophisticated.

It is not a secret in the industry that there is better tea out there. It is the secret that no one talks about with consumers. One tea wholesaler told me that he didn’t want to move up in quality because he was currently making a great markup selling mediocritea, and he didn’t have to bother with explaining the difference in price. He told me this a long time ago and he is still doing well, but I wonder about his customers.

The theme of the World Tea Expo this year is going to be quality. I’m anxious to see how then are going to define it this year. Consumers are having a hard time continuing to believe that mediocritea is quality tea.

When I decided to use the word mediocritea I googled it, just to make sure that there wasn’t a company currently named that, and found this site created in Australia. They have done a video called “Tea Bag Sucker”. Really good stuff, plus they have published a book where you can research all possible tea puns, before you name your website.

Tea is a compelling drink. Once you have had a cup of good tea you are going to have a real hard time going back to mediocritea.