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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — August 1 — Beverages

Steep Profits
Climbing consumption patterns make tea a must-have on restaurant menus

As a beverage, tea is the essence of simplicity, a preparation that involves only boiling water and tea leaves.

This straightforward formula underscores tea’s reputation as a low-price/ high-profit menu showpiece, appropriate in almost all foodservice settings, from school to kiosk to four-star.

In some operations, tea service involves nothing more than chilling bottles of iced tea and placing them along a servery, or arranging a selection of tea bags near an urn of hot water for self service. In other settings, unusual tea varieties and distinctive presentations elevate the experience, giving guests the sense of time-honored ritual and operators a comfortable profit margin. While most teas cost pennies per serving, hot or iced tea served with flourish can be menued for $3 or more, depending on venue.

Higher price points have helped foodservice sales of iced and hot tea jump from $2 billion to more than $4.5 billion in the past decade, according to the National Restaurant Association and the Tea Council of the U.S.A. Foodservice sales of green tea, once a specialty product and now a favorite in the Asian restaurant segment, grew from $2 million to $90 million in the past five years.

By many accounts, tea’s potential is still brewing. “The foodservice market definitely is there,’’ says Keith Powell, a beverage consultant in Albuquerque, N.M. “Anyone not committed to coffee is open [to discovering tea].’’

The surge in restaurant consumption is aided by several factors. Tea complements many ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indian, an advantage as restaurant fare becomes more global. Tea’s exotic nuances and flavors can be promoted with innovative marketing. And its potential health benefits draw many consumers as do the beverage’s decaffeinated and herbal blends.

Trained to a T
Waitstaff at Tabla, an Indian-inspired restaurant in New York City, plant the idea of tea with dessert by asking guests, “Do you want tea or coffee?” Servers then present 10 loose teas as though they were wines, says Richard Breitkreutz, beverage director for the Union Square Hospitality Group concept.

“Waiters explain the blends and aromas with the same confidence given dishes and ingredients,’’ he adds. For example, Breitkreutz says that describing Tibetan Tiger tea’s vanilla and butterscotch flavors—perfect to savor with dessert—arouses curiosity and often leads to orders.

Guests who comment favorably about their selections are given souvenir tea bags plus cards that describe the teas and provide retail sources.

Presentation is major component of successful tea selling. At Zitoune, a Moroccan restaurant in New York City, the customary theatrics of traditional Moroccan tea service have been adapted to engage diners and increase beverage sales. Watching a waiter skillfully aim a thin stream of tea toward a glass from a pot is an attention-grabber.

“Customers like having the waiter perform at their table,’’ says Owner Saad Khallaayoun, adding that Zitoune sells 30 to 50 cups of mint tea per day at a food cost of 50 cents per serving. A menu price of $4.50 per order ensures an impressive return. “My biggest cost is for premium Chinese green tea,’’ Khallaayoun says, “not for sugar or mint.’’

Shoppers and showers
Chicago’s Atwood Café occupies a prime corner in the city’s Loop, an area bustling with shoppers, tourists and workers from office buildings. Prompted by this diverse customer base, General Manager Amy Svendberg aims tea sales at several key audiences.

Shoppers from nearby department stores are primary targets for Atwood’s British-inspired tea menu. “It’s a pause for them, a way to relax away from the buzz of the stores,’’ says Svendberg. And after the lunch rush, lingering over tea and conversation doesn’t tie up tables.

The cafe also markets its tea service to bridal showers. “Once the service is set up with beverages, cups, plates and food, guests are left alone. They like the sense of privacy.’’ There’s minimal interruption from waiters who can easily replenish without disturbing guests.

Cold comfort
Restaurant consumption of iced tea also is on the uptick, riding on the coattails of growth in the hot-tea arena. As interest in this summertime staple grows, so do demands for quality products.

For some, that means blends that combine tea and fruit flavors. At Mon Ami Gabi, a French bistro concept operated by Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a bottled product is available in three varieties, including ginger peach and raspberry. Upscale packaging—an attractive bottle with a colorful label—makes it appropriate to serve at the table.

Traditionalists pledge allegiance to brewed tea even when it’s served over ice. In the Deep South, where iced tea is the refreshment of choice for many, brewed tea stays fresh due to high volume. Smaller demand, however, makes large batches impractical. One new system allows single-cup brewing, a safe, easy option that demands little labor.

Mind and body
Conveying tea’s healthful aspects and playing to its perception as a refreshing, calming drink can build business, says beverage consultant Powell.

Media attention to the beverage’s possible health benefits is one explanation for rising tea sales among women in their 30s. At San Domenico, a fine-dining Italian restaurant in New York City, General Manager Marisa May sees an increasing number of women in this age group ordering special tea blends instead of coffee.

Six teas are offered at San Domenico, with a serving in a French press priced at $4.25. “Tea is not a hard sell because the presentation is so impressive,’’ she says.

When René Guerrero created Madhatters Tea House Café in 1995, the only books he could find on the topic were available by mail order. Today, the widespread appreciation of tea has spawned a culture of salons, kiosks and restaurants such as his. The owner of the 170-seat operation in San Antonio says profitability comes from selling tea and its accouterments, offering hot foods, sandwiches and salads that pair with teas, plus creating tea-centered events for the family.

Madhatters’ menu lists 60 types of loose tea, an array that prompts many questions—and orders—from guests. Guerrero says staff training is continuous so that each team member stays well versed in the subtle differences that mark each variety.

Food choices give nod to tea as an ingredient, including raspberry-tea waffles and chicken cooked in Lapsang Souchong, one of China’s most fragrant teas. High tea, traditionally served in the afternoon, is available anytime; checks average $13.

Increasing tea awareness and appreciation in this country tempt Guerrero to consider expansion. “I can envision growing this concept.’’

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