Out of the Bar
As tea becomes more popular, operator find gold in leaves.
At Bambu in Miami Beach, Fla., litchi nut tea is served in a wineglass. At Chez Henri in Cambridge, Mass., a tea list arrives with the dessert menu. At Tangerine in Philadelphia, an arc of mint tea streams into cups as waiters serve the house beverage with a Moroccan flourish.
Tea is out of the bag and proving there’s gold in those leaves. Its renaissance comes as the buying power and demographics of baby boomers spread, as published research reports its health benefits and as the popularity of all things Asian continues to flavor menus.
Distributors are rising to the demand, offering more than orange pekoe. Innovative restaurateurs are tapping the profit potential by serving varieties of hot and cold teas and drinks with a tea base.
Steven Smith has nothing against coffee. In fact, the tea industry veteran uses java as a role model for marketing. “Starbucks turned coffee into an experience. Why not tea?’’ says the founder of a Portland-based tea company.
“Restaurateurs agonize over wine and coffee. But tea costs less, between 3 cents to 15 cents, depending on quality. If you raise consumer awareness about tea, then you can raise the prices to equal coffee.’’
TEA AS IN THEATER
At Tangerine, a Moroccan restaurant, diners get a dose of theater when they order the house mint tea. A 32-ounce press pot arrives with boiling water and a heaping tablespoon of coarsely chopped dried mint leaves. After it’s steeped for 3 minutes, a waiter pours the tea with outstretched arm into gold-rimmed tea glasses, says William Kolar, general manager. An order costs $5.
The restaurant goes through 10 pounds of fresh mint per month. Leaves are dried for 10 days in a prep kitchen then crushed. “Instead of offering many teas, we keep things simple,’’ says Kolar. He also sells alternatives such as Earl Grey and Darjeeling.
Tangerine’s pastry chef has joined the tea mindset. She presents a scoop of lemon sorbet with a border of berries. A waiter at tableside pours hot mint tea over the sorbet. And everyone looks, says Kolar. “Serving tea this way has an impact.’’ Food costs for the dessert that sells for $7.50 run 24% to 28%.
The owners of Chez Henri decided to jazz up the beverage selections for the 83-seat restaurant, recently introducing a tea program created by a local distributor of specialty teas. A list of loose-leaf teas with descriptions accompanies the seven-item dessert menu.
“Half the customers order dessert, and of those, 7% order tea,’’ says Christianne Brissette, general manager. Besides English breakfast and Darjeeling, flavors include linden, wild mint and Sevon, which is a blend of Saint John’s-wort, oregano, chamomile, basil and berry. Each order comes in a white ceramic pot with filter and sells for $2.50. It costs the restaurant about 65 cents.
To raise consumer standards and expectations, restaurants must train and expose staff, says Smith. “Treat tea like wine. Hold tastings.”
The staff of Bambu is invited to tastings of new teas. The nine choices on the menu range in price from $3 to $7. All are served in heatproof glasses. When litchi nut tea is served in a 10-ounce heatproof wineglass, “as the tea steeps, the leaves fold out and expand. It looks like a flower. It’s spectacular,’’ says Stephen Barber, chef de cuisine.
The restaurant’s food costs with tea are high, around 35%. But Barber doesn’t mind. “We don’t make money on caviar, either. But they’re offered as a service, something different.”
Wayne Powers is thrilled about the growing interest in tea. The actor-turned-tea expert owns Tea Rex in Charlotte, N.C. Along with snacks and sandwiches, he sells 100 varieties of loose-leaf tea. “Tea in this country suffered because all you got was a tea bag in tepid water,’’ he says.
Powers urges operators to hire food-and-beverage professionals who know tea and how to serve it. He is adamant about water temperature. “Use a candy thermometer. Don’t guess. You want 210F for black tea and 185F for green tea. Preheat the pot before the water is added. In the transfer of water into the pot, you lose 15 degrees of water temperature in 10 seconds,’’ he says. And finally, “Present tea in a way that your competition doesn’t,” he says.
Arnie D’Angelo agrees. “Bring teas to the table as a collection like the best cigars,’’ says the president of international marketing for a Fairfield, Conn.-based tea company. “Tea and coffee are the last items diners order. If you just spent $60 per guest on a meal and get a lousy cup of tea, it’s a detail you remember.”