Upscale to a tea

The once-humble bag of black tea has evolved.  Now, ordering a cup elicits classy sachets in a range of flavors. Just as demand dictated that craft beers grab more menu space from mass-market brands, growing sophistication is tipping toward indie and high-craft teas.

At the Little Beet, chef Franklin Becker’s new health-conscious eatery in New York City, guests wash down the toasted buckwheat with tea. If they opt for the $3.99 iced choice, it will be an antioxidant-laden guayusa from the Ecuadorian Amazon in flavors of mint and hibiscus-berry. “Tea is in line with our brand,” says Andy Duddleston, director of operations. “It’s something you associate as pure, it goes with our clean food.”

Upscale tea is fast becoming mainstream. Consider Jamba Juice. In 2012, the 800-unit Emeryville, Calif.-based QSR acquired Talbott Teas, and now the smoothie behemoth sells half a dozen flavors including Paris Breakfast and Chocolate Strawberry Temptation. Oxford, Miss.-based McAlister’s Deli introduced tea bars, where patrons can customize the fresh-brewed Famous Sweet Tea with cane sugar. And Chicago-based Argo Tea now numbers 40 locations, serving signature iced and hot teas.

Most recently, Starbucks debuted Teavana Concept Bars in New York and Seattle, eager to bring as much attention to tea as it has to coffee. Featured are unusual variations such as sparkling teas, and the walls are studded with bins of loose-leaf varieties.

In Portland, Ore., Steve Smith runs the tea salon-meets-lab known as Steven Smith Teamaker, where customers unwind with his handcrafted full-leaf black tea from Assam, India, as well as the Fez, a spearmint-heightened blend of green teas. Smith, founder of Stash and Tazo, says the challenge is no longer convincing restaurants to serve tea, “but presenting tea in a way that is profitable.”

“Transparent sachets and whole leaves may be more expensive, but that translates to better tea, which means operators are going to sell more,” he says. “Many guests don’t look at the price of a cup of tea at the end of the meal; they just order it.”

Austin, Texas-based fast casual Mama Fu’s Asian House has partnered with a local, sustainable tea company, and it’s a hit with guests.  James Clark, Mama Fu’s food and beverage manager, says that iced tea accounts for 60 percent of cold beverage sales, far outselling soda. And when the weather is right, diners spring for one of the six hot teas, of which the green and green with lemongrass are particularly popular.

The individually wrapped sachets sit on Mama Fu’s counter in a hardwood box with a clear lid to help make visual connections with guests. “We haven’t done any big menu directional or POP; it’s all been employee-based hand-selling. But it’s not something we need to push hard other than a mention of our unique flavors,” Clark says.


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