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Love vs. Business

by Michael Cramer

Tea and Cookies

Like so many others, your interest in the business of tea is likely an extension of your love for the product. Our favorite beverage has been known to inspire such dreams. And what could be more alluring than finding yourself an owner of a popular tea room, authoritatively urging perfect strangers to discover tea's full range of colors, taste and aromas. The attractions of tea business are strong indeed.

It's easy to close one's eyes, and imagine hundreds upon hundreds of the most exotic teas from the farthest reaches of the world, places that most people have never heard of, much less able to find on the map. All beautifully displayed, and cunningly inviting. A can't-miss trap for any adventuresome soul who dares peep in the door.

The reality of course is that most visitors will come in looking for something a bit simpler. They'll ask for Earl Grey with blue flowers. Or whipped chai latte with chocolate sprinkles. And woe be any retailer who turns one's nose at such requests.

Because the truth of the matter is that while we all live for the customer who is able to discern Darjeeling's flushes, there are simply not enough of them at the moment to sustain a viable business. I am not speaking of course to those of you who have inherited a fortune, and tea is simply a labor of love. If that's the case, please drop me a note. I'll be happy to visit.

The rest of us however, burdened by the inconvenience of having to meet rent and salary payments, might wish to be more practical. And cold-eye realistic about the sizable chasm between our own knowledge and involvement in tea, and those prevalent in the public at large. Please don't misunderstand. I am not advocating dumbing things down, and adding tapioca to every pot. However, I would urge you to take the wishes and whims of your customers seriously.

Next time out dinning, venture into the back of the restaurant, and chat up its chef. He is likely to regale you with stories of his mouth-watering Peking Duck. But look closely at what's leaving the kitchen, and you'll see plate after plate of chicken with broccoli. The former is what the chef lives for. The latter is what pays the bills.

The same is true of tea. Good old Earl Grey and Irish Breakfast will flow like no tomorrow. And keep your lights on. Which is important in business; no one visits a tea room darkened by an unpaid utility bill.

More importantly, they'll bring people to your shop. Tea-drinking people, who are seeking Earl Grey not because they prefer it above all else. But because they haven't sampled anything better. And here's your chance to live out the dream. To turn a customer asking for Orange Pekoe into one with an appreciation of Yunnan Gold. This won't happen overnight. You may have to recommend a Ceylon and Assam along the way. However, once the expectations are raised, chances are good this discovery of tea will continue. And unless you manage to screw up badly along the way, you'll have a customer for life.

So as Machiavellian as it sounds, think of Earl Grey as your trusted bait-and-switch ploy. Make sure it's on hand to keep the seats filled. And then take the time to encourage an exploration of teas more refined. For the sake of both your customers and your business. For there's lots of placed serving Earl Grey. But how many do you know that make a great Darjeeling? Get your customers to love the latter, and everyone wins.

Now I don't want to imply that all Earl Grey teas are the same. They are not. And you should aim to offer the best. After all, the price difference between the finest of versions, and one that's simply average is just pennies per cup. So please don't skimp on the basics, and ensure that you offer the best. After all, it is prohibitively expensive to offer the finest of Darjeelings, or competition-grade Ti Kuan Yin. But the finest Earl Grey is very affordable, and easily within anyone's means. It makes little sense to offer anything else.

Because even a novice tea drinker will appreciate the difference. And you must give her a reason to cross the street. Or walk an extra few blocks to reach your place. Remember, no one goes out of their way for bad tea.

Another thing to keep in mind is that tea is perishable. And the most amazing of varieties will not stay so for long. So it's important to be realistic when stocking up. That First Flush Darjeeling may sends your taste buds singing, but it will not sell briskly. It is better to place frequent orders than be stuck with esoteric teas covered in cobwebs. Otherwise you will simply have to drink it all yourself. And as the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.

In summary, if there is one idea it is my aim to impart, it is to appreciate the important distinction between you as a tea lover and you as a businessperson. And know when it's time to switch one hat for the other.