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Tripping Over Limp Wet Tea Bags!

Is tea about to step into the spotlight or will it struggle with identity and trip up over a limp wet tea bag?

Back in the early 1980’s celebrity chefs, TV cookery programs and the groaning of book shelves under the immense weight of cookery books were all thin on the ground! Then came along the so called “Foodie”, whose name was coined by Paul Levy and Ann Barr in England or Gael Greene in the US, which ever you prefer. Levy and Barr later used the name in their 1984 book – The Official Foodie Handbook, of which I remember receiving a copy. The foodie was unleashed and the whole food industry went mad. The infatuation of food, where it comes from, how we prepare it, the best way to cook it or not, and the places we should visit to indulge this infatuation, became a global phenomenon.

As part of this phenomena certain countries took a fascination in coffee, Australia being one of them. A cup of coffee in Australia up to the early 1990’s, was generally served instant or cappuccino style in milk bars and cafes. Some of you reading this and of a certain vintage, will probably now smile knowingly but for those who weren’t there. A cappuccino back then was more likely to resembled a choc top ice cream, rather than the cappuccino we know today. Then came the initial coffee shops and fashionable cafes, and the never ending competition betweenMelbourne and Sydney over who had/has the best coffees. The larger companies entered the market and created recognizable high street coffee names like – Coffee Club, Jamaica Blue and Gloria Jeans. Finally, the introduction of the barista as a competitor, a highly skilled knowledgeable individual who can create excellence in a coffee cup. Today, Australia even exports its baristas around the globe, and boasts some of the most awarded individuals in the world. Coffee certainly has reached those dizzy heights of stardom and its fair time in the spotlight.

So is it time for tea to lift the gauntlet of battle and attempt to challenge the giant for its place in the spotlight? Personally I don’t think so, tea even though growing globally as the preferred beverage still struggles with its own identity. The tea bag revolution of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s has damaged the image of tea. Tea has become the drink at home, we just pop on the kettle, drop in the bag and pour on the hot water! The skills of making a good cup of tea have been banished, and replaced with this easy method of making a quick accessible drink. Quality and taste have become victims of the quick brew, instant colour, tea bag. I’m often asked by students or members of the hospitality industry when do I feel it’s acceptable to serve a tea bag. My answer is always the same – if you are serving instant coffee then it’s suitable to serve a tea bag but if you have gone to the effort of serving bean coffee then you should serve leaf tea!

Tea shops and tea bars are opening everywhere, which is great to see but when the reality of sound business principles are applied, many close their doors forever. Most just simply don’t make enough financial return for their hard working owners, who in most cases have opened their business to create some return. Recent casualties of this, have been the Teavana tea bars who have been closed by their owners Starbucks. The tea bars just simply didn’t justify the cost of retail space. The days of a tea houses on almost every corner in the city, would appear to have gone forever!

But does this mean “it’s all over Red Rover”, no, I don’t believe so. Today entrepreneurs and business people are having discussions based around tea ventures. Some will visit expos; others may be sipping on tea in their place of origin, while another may be escaping the corporate ladder to fulfill their dreams. Wherever they get their inspiration to have these discussions is great, because somewhere along the line new inspirational ways of selling tea will be created. When the manageress of the ABC (Aerated Bread Company) bakery shop at London Bridge station, London. Started to invite friends for tea and cakes in the afternoon at the bakery shop she managed. Little was she to know, how her actions would affect the service of tea in England and instigate the opening of new tea or corner houses as they were known. The coffee houses of London were about to experience a seismic change in the public’s preference of beverage, drinking and social habits. J. Lyons & Co were one of the most influential of these new tea/corner house establishments. Their pots of tea and reasonably priced food, served by smart looking waitresses known as “Nippies”, in clean white and gold surroundings was a hit with the British public. This was a place where families could enjoy a new style of dining or simply a good cup of tea, which was a dramatically different to the dark dingy coffee houses of London. Joe Lyons & Co opened 250 such outlets by 1900, then in 1904 became wholesalers of their own pre-packed tea, by 1907 Lyons Tea was being sold in over 15,000 outlets around the United Kingdom.

Like many successful business J. Lyons & Co didn’t sell tea, they sold a lifestyle, they developed a fashion, they create the need for their tea houses. The desire of the British people to eat, and drink tea at Lyons Tea Houses or brew Lyons tea at home, produced a tea business of enormous proportions with a vast global reach. Today we can easily make a modern day comparison with Apple, who equally sell a lifestyle, a range of must-have accessories. Apple conceived in the garage of a modest family home in Los Altos, California. Today, has its own shops in every shopping mall around the globe, its products in every telco outlet and has made itself a household name. Apple isn’t a McIntosh computer anymore but the whole package and continues to generate new needs to further that package.

So no it’s not “all over Red Rover” because someone, somewhere is having those discussions on how to create the new style of tea businesses, that won’t trip up over the limp wet tea bags. Tea is due to have it’s turn in the spotlight, it should continue to raise the gauntlet in competition with other beverages and create a new lifestyle fashion.

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