Tea may always trail coffee in popularity, but that doesn’t limit the beverage’s potential.
Sales are expected to grow at an annual rate of up to 3%, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. This forecasted increase is based on the popularity of matcha, kombucha and higher-quality tea, which have helped encouraged tony spots such as Atera, Olmsted and Eleven Madison Park in New York to hire tea sommeliers.
The growing demand for loose-leaf single-estate blends is new, says Lisa McDonald, owner of TeaHaus, a tea retailer and wholesaler in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her business, which supplies restaurants, bars and cafes, has enjoyed a 300% increase in the last three to four years.
Thanks to growing demand, restaurants can now build profitable tea programs. Experts such as McDonald recommend monitoring the trends transforming food menus – sourcing transparency, healthy offerings and visual appeal – and then apply them to a tea program.
ADD A LOCAL TOUCH
Unlike coffee drinkers, most tea enthusiasts aren’t chasing a caffeine buzz. At Lagusta’s Luscious Commissary!, a cafe in New Paltz, New York, owner Lagusta Yearwood supplemented her coffee program with teas after many of her morning coffee regulars returned in the afternoon for a less jittery option.
Hoping to brew teas that reflected her local terroir, she found ready-made fair-trade blends from tea-growing nations and local infusions, like an Egyptian chamomile grown in the Hudson Valley.
Just as imported ingredients can improve a menu, tea programs can benefit from ordering the right teas from abroad.
At Brew’s Lee Tea in San Antonio, Texas, owner Frances Lee and her husband, Billy Lee, who grew up in Asia, serve traditional Taiwanese flavors, including floral and creamy oolong milk tea.
Their offerings are narrow but focused, with each tea brewed every morning to ensure optimal flavor. The goal is to provide customers with a perfect re-creation of what they might find in Taiwan – traditional yet modern flavors that are often light and sippable.
BE AN INSTAGRAM ARTIST
Don’t be afraid to borrow a page from the Instagram all-stars who create frothy works of art out of foam and milk. Teas can produce a wider array of colors than coffee, whether it’s the bright green matchas or golden milk tea made with turmeric.
“People asked for our golden milk so much ... that we sell a lot of it now, with homemade cashew milk and sometimes local turmeric,” says Yearwood.
She’s constantly introducing new varieties – from fruity Persian black teas and smoky Russian styles – and teaching her staff how to sell them. When combined with rose water, cashew milk, rose petals and candied hibiscus, her teas double as social media clickbait.
Although customers expect teas to cost less than high-end coffee, swapping out simple cups and soggy teabags for eye-catching teaware allows for elevated prices.
At Commissary, Yearwood serves tea in French press–type pots that go to the table at $4.50 per pot. But the delicate teaware can break, so the staff teaches guests how to properly use it.
Lee has adopted a similar strategy, from importing ingredients to ceramic teapots directly from Taiwan. “Almost everything is double the original price,” she says. Still, going for a delicate and extensive presentation with high-caliber ingredients is worthwhile for the impact on customers, who return for the experience.
MORE CREAM, PLEASE
Using tea as a foundational flavor in other hot beverages draws customers who might otherwise stick with what they know.
“We’ve been trying to push tea lattes, both to expand our menu without adding ingredients and because they’re a higher price point,” says Yearwood.
At Brew’s Lee Teas, they’ve included milk tea ice cream and split cups, so customers can try two flavors at once. Almond winter melon, taro coconut milk, and masala chai – priced between $5 and $8 – attract repeat visitors and give novice sippers something to raise their pinkies about.