The New York Times Dining and Wine Section features Samovar among the colorful and diverse San Francisco Bay Area teahouses.
Teahouses’ Unique Blends Are Not Just in the Cup
By GREGORY DICUM
Published: January 1, 2010
“…Samovar, in the Castro, makes tea drinking a stylish affair. Teas from around the world are served as they are in their home countries: Japanese maki bowls of rice and seaweed with ryokucha brown rice tea, English tea service with scones and Devonshire cream, Chinese tea with dumplings, and masala chai with curry. Russian tea is poured from a gleaming samovar.
‘We bring the world’s tea traditions under one roof,” said Jesse Jacobs, who opened Samovar in 2001. “It’s contemporary and hip but also respecting tradition.’
…Though many occupy spaces that used to be coffeehouses, it’s too early to call tea drinking a trend that will replace espresso anytime soon. Instead, it’s a parallel, calmer universe.
Tea Cozy: With help from his friends, an entrepreneur creates spaces for lingering.
By Megan Erickson
September 1, 2009
(Fortune Small Business) –At Samovar Tea Lounge, a chain of three teahouses in San Francisco, you’ll find no wireless Internet or bulletin board littered with local news and advertisements.
“The goal is to create relationships with customers where they become guests — or friends,” says CEO Jesse Jacobs, a dot-com veteran who opened the first Samovar, in the Castro/Mission district during the 2001 tech crash. “Our design reflects that. We try to provide a cocoon from the outside world, so we need more than just a few chairs and a Formica countertop.”
Seating space at the teahouse’s bamboo tables is intentionally tight. Jacobs, who built his shops without consulting professional designers, says the setup encourages patrons to mingle and try menu items that beckon from neighbors’ plates.
“It’s easy to overhear conversations, but that’s good,” says copywriter Paul Tootalian, 42, a regular customer. “There’s a real community feel.”
Inc. Magazine Fastest Growing Companies – We Made the List!
Samovar Tea Lounge joins an elite group of companies across America as they have made the 2009 Inc. Magazine 5000 list of fastest-growing companies. Over the last six years, Samovar has grown its staff to over 60 employees and to three San Francisco locations.
We’d like to thank all of our customers for contributing to our rapid and prosperous growth!
American Express Small Business Rules
Feb 17, 2010
“Tea is more than just a drink, it’s a chance to slow down the present moment. At least, that’s how Jesse Jacobs sees it, who was looking for a place to relax, hang out with friends, drink something healthy, and that was an alternative to the bar scene. Jesse created Samovar, a tea lounge that serves artisan whole leaf tea sourced from family farms all over the world. Samovar now includes three San Francisco locations and an online store.”
ABC News Channel 7’s The View from the Bay tastes, talks, and pairs tea and food with Samovar Tea Lounge founder Jesse Jacobs.
Tea & Food Pairings featured in the segment:
White Tea: Poached eggs, buttered sour dough toast with honey, sauted greens, steamed veggies, and desserts like vanilla ice cream and flan all help to bring out the subtle floral sweetness of this beautiful Chinese White tea.
Puerh Tea:Quiche, omelettes, nutella on toast, bittersweet chocolate, robust red wine and cheese, and spicy foods all pair really well with this earthy, espresso-like aged Chinese tea.
Green Tea:The succulent, floral, aromatic quality of jasmine flowers blended with organic, fair trade Chinese green tea pairs really well with rich, robust, smoky, heavy foods. Brioche French Toast, bacon, smoked fish, huevos rancheros, red meat, baked swordfish, sauteed onions and garlic are all ingredients and flavors that pair greatly with this tea.
Tea & Health:
• Seasonal, whole leaf Tea is healthy, as it’s got less caffeine than coffee, loads of antioxidants, and a natural, fresh delicious taste that comes only with artisanal whole leaf leaves sourced from small family farms around the globe.
• It’s soothing, and simultaneously uplifting, actually known to stimulate the same brain waves that yoga and meditation do!
• And, organic, Fair Trade tea is good for the environment as it is sustainably harvested from small scale family farms.
• Tea is romantic, and perfect for valentine’s day. Bring health and clarity to life and your loved one by giving them artisanal tea.
• Tea is easy. Brewing whole leaf tea is simple and fun, just add a pinch of fresh tea leaves to hot water, steep, and enjoy.
• Tea is about connecting: Living today in our modern world people have the need to connect, slow down, and take time for appreciating life. Tea delivers that.
• It raises the bar as the first tea company to launch an unprecedented eco-friendly packaging design consisting of 100% compostable materials. Recognized for its award-winning tea menu and leading role in the burgeoning American tea movement, Samovar develops innovative eco-conscious solutions for everyday small business needs.
• Samovar’s ingenious packaging utilizes 100% post-consumer cardboard for its exterior shell and a wood pulp fiber liner to retain maximum freshness of their handcrafted teas.
• A pioneering Bay Area green business, Samovar proudly introduces a sustainable container that, if composted, would turn to soil within a couple of months. The new container will be available in 2010.
• Samovar holds an exclusive partnership with Eva Lee and Chiu Leng of the Hawaii Tea Society as they will supply artisan tea made in America.
• Samovar’s goal is to further put America on the map for the production of premium artisan tea. After eight years of continual farming in Volcano Village on the Big Island, Samovar is the first mainland outlet to feature the limited edition Hawaii-Grown Oolong and Hawaii-Grown Black Tea, which was released on September 1, 2009.
• Samovar recently prepared a custom tea blend for His Holiness The Dalai Lama. The tea is named after The Dalai Lama himself, its titled Ocean of Wisdom. The tea accompanied The Dalai Lama as he presented “The Missing Peace” project at various art institutions across the U.S. Ocean of Wisdom is available for purchase at Samovar’s three Bay Area locations and online.
• Samovar is the exclusive retailer of “Gyokuro Inoka Hill,” which took 1st Place in the All Japanese Gyokuro Tea Competition last year. No one else in the world sells this tea, not even any retailers in Japan. It’s for only politicians and dignitaries in Japan, and Samovar customers.
• Almost all Samovar teas are organic and fair trade certified.
• Samovar utilizes many eco-friendly sustainability practices in their design and building efforts. They use many reclaimed and renewable resources as they design new locations. Their latest locale features a 1200 year-old, 20-foot naturally wind fallen redwood tree from Marin, CA serving as the tea bar.
• All tables are from wind fallen old growth trees, and the FSC certified wood flooring comes from sustainably managed US forests. All the metal work utilizes materials from turn of the century food processing facilities.
• Samovar allocates 1% of their profits to an education budget for standout employees to travel to other countries to research new teas firsthand, attend national industry and restaurant conventions, and take tea education classes.
Unisex Valentine’s Gifts for Every Sense.
By Margaret Ryan
The Huffington Post
February 2, 2010
“Valentine’s Day may have roots in a Hallmark campaign, but what harm is there in setting aside a day that motivates you to make a point of celebrating the one you love? Man or woman — here is a list of five genderless gifts which will appeal to the object of your affection…
(Taste) Samovar Tea Lounge Romance Tea Set: Packaged in a scarlet gift box, this unique tea set by San Francisco Company Samovar features three 40z. boxes of teas known for their seductive qualities: Wild Rose Bai Mudan (crushed rose petals and wild field grasses), Jasmine Pearl (jasmine blossoms and hints of cocoa powder) and Maiden’s Ecstasy (dark flavors of rich earth and wildflower honey). It also comes with a mesh infuser.$79 at Samovar.”
Samovar Tea Lounge
Specialty Coffee Retailer
by Dan Bolton
“New generation teahouses share a vision of tea for the broad audience, say Samovar Tea Lounge founder Jesse Jacobs (featured on this month’s cover)….
‘What all these teahouses have in common is an experience that is based on the foundations of tea: relaxation, social intimacy, and health — and delivered via food and teas with integrity.'”
“At its three locations around the city, Samovar Tea Lounge has mastered what many restaurants aspire to but which few achieve. More than just a business, it’s a lifestyle. Denizens here aren’t just cooks, waiters, baristas, and regulars — they’re ‘Ambassadors’ on a ‘mission to create peace through tea.’
“Samovar’s approach involves sourcing small batch, organic teas at fair trade prices from artisan family farmers, educating the public on the benefits of tea, and promoting traditional tea culture through the restaurants, events, and extensive Web site, Samovarlife.com. While the globally-inspired menu offers choices from dinner to brunch, small plates to dessert, the star is the tea, which Samovar implores you “sip slowly, filling you with calm and vitality.”
In a year when luxuries have to come with small price tags, the San Francisco Chronicle gives Samovar Teas a nod in their affordable gift guide:
“No gifts, no glory — yes, it’s that time of year. The quest for lasting value made our holiday shopping different this year. Quality trumped quantity, an old-fashioned notion that’s new again and, when we did the math, affordable. We took our Champagne-tastes and found indulgences, treats and all kinds of surprises on a ginger ale budget. The challenge made us creative. We’re delighted with the high-low mix. And as you wrap your selections, we know you’ll be basking in the giver’s happy glow.”
Florence Fabricant of the New York Times picks Samovar’s Hawaii- Grown Teas for the Times’ holiday gift guide!
“Hawaiian Tea – Hawaii is known for its Kona coffee, but now serious commercial growers are cultivating high-quality teas. Tea Hawaii’s black tea has a winy richness, and its oolong is layered with subtle earthiness. Neither is bitter. Hawaii teas can be ordered from www.samovartea.com in San Francisco, for $25 an ounce.”
“This bastion of relaxation pays homage to the tea rituals of many great chai-centric societies, including a classic English service, a Moorish medley, and a Chinese tea tasting. If your hot beverage mood is steering you to Russia with love, then the house-blend black tea goes brilliantly with Samovar’s devilled eggs, which takes the traditional Ruskie whole wheat blini topped with caviar and egg yolk and inverts it, instead stuffing the egg with caviar and serving alongside wheat crackers.”
San Francisco tea lounge opens third site in Hayes Valley, boosts web site
San Francisco Business Times – by Elizabeth Rauber September 18, 2009
The United States has never had much of a tea culture, but Jesse Jacobs thinks that a change is brewing.
Jacobs is the owner of Samovar, a chain of three San Francisco tea lounges and an online tea emporium that emphasizes artisan, fair trade, organic teas grown at small farms around the world.
Already, Samovar has grown revenue to $2.3 million in 2008, more than doubling 2006’s $1.1 million in revenue. Jacobs projects 2009 revenue to hit $2.8 million, due in part to the addition, eight months ago, of the third Samovar location in Hayes Valley.The newest site follows the original Mission-Castro location, opened in 2001, and the Yerba Buena Gardens lounge, opened in 2006.
Samovar’s web site allows customers to buy tea and “tea gear” and serves up information about different teas and how to brew them. In 2009, Samovar’s revenue from the web site increased 500 percent over 2008’s revenue from the web site.
Everywhere I go, people tell me how horrible it is to be drinking so much coffee. I get it. Extreme coffee experiences can put your whole sense of well-being out of whack even if it does jolt you to your basic senses first thing in the morning.
So more and more, I’m substituting my coffee routine with tea and I’ve rediscovered a long forgotten passion that began steeping in my soul since my childhood. Growing up in Texas, I was raised on iced tea. Huge tumblers of frosty deep amber tea with lemon.
Tea has always been in my life in one way or another. And when I spent a summer in Winchester, UK when I was 14, my admiration for tea culture was officially born.I found the perfect teapot for my mother and I ritually drank my tea while reading Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia.
Later, when I went to college in Boston, I had boxes of herbal teas stashed in every corner of my apartments just to help fend off the biting, inhuman cold. Later, I lived in a Zen Center in Hollywood, where I enjoyed the art of tea ceremonies during retreats and using hot tea at every meal to clean our eating bowls.
So it was with great pleasure that I recently discovered Samovar Tea Lounge. Based is San Francisco and shipping around the globe, Samovar recently put together a custom blend prepared for His Holiness The Dalai Lama called Ocean of Wisdom. The tea accommodated The Dalai Lama as he traveled to various art institutions exhibiting the project “The Missing Peace.”
Samovar has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today rated Samovar teas as one of the top ten teas in the US.
Jesse Jacobs founded Samovar six years ago. I recently had the chance to ask Jesse some tea-related questions.
JHR: We live in such a dense coffee culture, but it seems like tea drinking is on the rise. Is that true and, if so, why? Also, can people really “get going” in the morning with a cup of organic, hand-crafted, artisan tea? Isn’t espresso, you know, faster?
JJ: In the ’90s, the specialty tea industry made $1 billion. In 2007, it was at $7 billion, and its forecasted by 2012 it will be at $14 billion. So, the tea industry is definitely on the rise. Samovar Tea Lounge has grown 300% in last 3 years. Tea has caffeine, and yes it can be used “as a get up and go beverage,” but with less jitters, and more focused awareness. It doesn’t have the same amount of caffeine as coffee, but artisan teas naturally carry caffeine and L-theanine, which induces the alpha state. Its scientifically proven that L-theanine aids in a state of relaxed awareness. This is helpful for the start of your day.
JHR: You’ve created a culture of mindfulness in your business. How important is mindfulness in the hectic life of a business?
JJ: Its very important because life is hectic and can be a frenzy, so there is more need for focus to get things done. I think mindfulness is the same as awareness. Awareness is the key to living fruitfully because if you are aware, you know what’s going on around you. You are sensitive, you can listen to the marketplace, to your customers, to your vendors, to yourself. And if you can listen, and hear, you can make effective and adventageous decisions. Interestingly, awareness is intrinsic in the practice of tea. So, the practice of tea aids in a successful practice of business.
Business is never ending, it is literally a practice, like meditation, or yoga or a martial art. It takes continual refinement, and as a practice, it requires mindfulness. Any study on mindfulness whether it be in meditation, drinking tea, yoga, martial arts, it’s helpful in achieving a better handle on how you approach business. I spent all of my life studying mindfulness practices, on the mat, on the cushion, in the martial arts dojo. Now, this business is just another manifestation of my mindfulness practice.
JHR: It seems like having tea is a time to slow down, connect and regroup. If someone wants to plan the perfect tea time, what are some important elements?
JJ: The important elements are having the freshest, best tea you can find. Having good quality hot water. And, having a moment to manage brewing the leaves, a mini-ritual to slow you down, stop you in the moment, and allow you to consciously take your next step.
JHR: What are some of the health and well-being elements of tea?
JJ: The scientifically proven health benefits of tea are that it is full of antioxidants, there are cancer fighting elements, and numerous vitamins and nutrients. Thousands of studies have been conducted on the benefits of tea. Additionally, a benefit of tea is that is it delicious, it pleases the palate, but also allows for a sense of setting a mood. It serves as a gentle awareness inducing uplifter. Tea brings people together, it serves as a natural social lubricant today just as much as it has when it was discovered several thousand years ago. It brings business, family and personal relations together, and today we really need togetherness. It creates ritual in our highly digitized, fast-paced, frenetic world. We are lacking ritual… the ritual that offers us to slow down, make us healthy, and connect us to the earth, and our humanness.
JHR: What is your current favorite and why?
JJ: Organic Masala Chai: I love this tea because the taste is very complex: spicy, great fragrance, nutty, sweet, aromatic, and earthy. Cooking the chai at my home or at Samovar, it fills the entire space with these overwhelming aromas. The caffeine is a natural and stimulating uplifter.
JHR: You started a podcast series calledPassage to Peace linking tea to promoting universal peace. How did that come about and what has the reaction been?
JJ: It came about by looking at what our customers, and therefore the world needs. They need peace. This is part of our mission. So, I thought it would be interesting to connect the people involved in the tea business (i.e. carpenters of peace) to the world at large through a multi-media, educational visual medium. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, which has motivated me to continue the series in an expanded new direction. We are launching a new video series.
JHR: What ignited your passion for tea?
JJ: My need for slowing down, and having time for myself and for my friends and family. And a remembrance of my childhood on the East Coast where I grew up with being surrounded by constant tea culture. I was always exposed to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese and European influences.
JHR: Can you share five books that have either influenced you or that you just like to read with, well, a good cup of tea?
JJ: Shibumi: Trevanian; The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway; Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi; The Book of Five Rings: Miyamoto Musashi; Body and Mature Behavior: Moshe Feldenkrais and Carl Ginsburg
The Executive In Action: Peter F. Drucker
Social media offer many ways to optimize your Web site’s marketing potential.
You have a Web site with your tea business’s basic information and maybe a shopping cart. You know you’re not making the most of your online presence, but don’t know where to begin expanding.
In part one of this two-part series, Lindsey Goodwin looks at moving beyond the basics and using virtual marketing tactics like online storefronts and social networking to drive sales, brand awareness and customer loyalty.
Most people by now would agree with the opinion of Jesse Jacobs, founder of Samovar, that having a Web site is “as important as paying rent every month.”
Amy Lawrence, owner of An Afternoon to Remember and upcoming speaker and exhibitor at the World Tea Expo, said her Web site acts as a worldwide, 24-hour advertisement and customer service rep. Since increasing her site’s e-commerce usability through simple additions – like “pay now” buttons for classes and events, clear credit card and shipping policies, and a security symbol – her online sales have skyrocketed. In the first three months after Lawrence’s new site launched, she matched online sales for the previous year.
While the cost to enter online retailing is low, Jacobs warned, you shouldn’t set up an online storefront blindly. He said you must consider hidden costs, such as accounting, storage and marketing, and standardize your processes to ensure customer satisfaction.
An e-commerce site may not be for everyone, but Web technology offers many benefits beyond sales. Bliss Dake, Mighty Leaf’s vice president of e-commerce and operations, said that although e-commerce is gaining popularity every year, other online approaches have additional perks – Twitter is immediate and viral, video and photos are visual, and blogs allow for detail.
Physical to digital
Between printing and mailing, Lawrence used to spend $1,500 each time she sent a newsletter to her customers. Given the cost, she did it infrequently. Now, she emails short “e-zines” biweekly and more in-depth “e-newsletters” four to six times a year at a drastically reduced cost. She said every time she sends out an e-zine, her site traffic increases as much as five-fold and remains high for about a week.
“When I know I need revenue fast, I send out an e-zine and I see results,” she said.
Here are her tips for success:
Use Constant Contact or a similar program.
Update your Web site to reflect your newsletters.
Consider timing and upcoming events.
Include valuable content, such as recipes or coupons.
Lawrence spends about 30 minutes writing each e-zine and two to eight hours a week working with Internet technologies to promote her tea room. Other publications, such as e-books and blogs, increase search engine optimization, or SEO, she added.
Blogging and microblogging
Chris Cason, co-founder of Tavalon, agreed that blogging increases SEO. He has been posting on his tea blog regularly for more than a year. Now, he said, “the blog gets just as much traffic as the site does, and anytime someone goes on the blog, there’s more of a chance they’ll go on the site.”
His advice for successful blogging follows:
Maintain objectivity to build trust.
Focus on information first and sales second.
Write with the voice of the company.
Create stories that encourage a loyal followingCover tea news and topical events.
Dake also uses blogs to increase brand awareness by sending samples to other bloggers. He said they often review the products and increase word-of-mouth publicity.
Twitter is sometimes referred to as “micro-blogging” because it has informal, blog-like content and a 140-character maximum. For each tweet (Twitter message), Jacobs said, he averages less than 10 minutes of writing and more than $500 in revenue.
Cason launched a Twitter campaign in March to reach 10,000 followers (readers) by April 1. Although he failed in the goal, he did generate publicity and reached 1,100 followers – enough to temporarily crash his site when he tweeted a 40 percent off sale.
“The best thing about Twitter is you get to follow who you want,” Cason said, “so you know that everyone who is receiving your tweets wants to know what you have to say. All you have to worry about is telling them what they want to hear.”
Dake recommended Twitter over other social media, video and blogging, explaining that it’s efficient, easy, free and effective for immediate connections with people. At the recent SXSW festival in Austin, TX, he used Twitter for a Tweet Up (get-together) where he gave away Mighty Leaf. He said it generated word-of-mouth publicity that lasted weeks after the event.
Sources gave these tips for using Twitter:
Put content before sales.
Keep posts educational, casual, unique and personable.
Give it a face, but don’t make it overly personal.
Follow Twitterers in related areas.
Offer valuable content, such as interesting facts, quizzes, links and current happenings.
The potential for viral marketing is high with Twitter, they added, as followers often “re-tweet” posts to their followers, exposing information to hundreds of people at a time in an amplified form of word-of-mouth advertising.
Editor’s note: In Part Two of our series, WTN will address social networking, photography, video, other Internet marketing and web culture. Look for it April 27.
Get your Zen on at the new Samovar Tea Lounge location in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley.
The third Bay Area location opened across from the Buddhism center, which means there could be some deep conversation and possibly a yoga mat or two.
You can choose from more than 50 kinds of tea, most of which I’ll bet you’ve never heard of, and healthy food such as a ginger quinoa waffle, jook, or a raw honeycomb, blue cheese and fruit platter. I was sent some of Samovar’s Ocean of Wisdom tea, and, while I’m still waiting for the promise of the name to kick in, it was indeed delicious.
Friday, September 12, 2008 Entrepreneur profile
Founder and CEO, Samovar Tea Lounge
HQ: San Francisco. 2007 revenue: $1.8 million. Number of employees: 40. Year founded: 2001. Source of startup capital: $300,000 in loans from the SBA, family and friends.
Background: Born in Brookline, Mass., raised in a commune and graduated with a bachelor’s in international relations from University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Taught English in Denmark and Japan. Founded a web startup in Boston before driving to California for the tech boom. After the dot-com bust in 2001, founded Samovar.
Age: 37. Residence: San Francisco.
Web site: www.samovartea.com. What it does: Tea shop
Reason for starting business: I wanted to create peace. Tea is the perfect vehicle for creating peace.
Most difficult part of decision: Risking everything — money, family, friends and free time.
Biggest plus of ownership: Doing exactly what you love. Watching an idea turn into physical reality.
Biggest drawback: There is no “clocking out” and going home for the weekend. Ever.
Biggest misconception: Getting rich quick and defining your own schedule.
Biggest business strength: Our model is a tea experience to make people feel good, like going to China or visiting a spa.
Biggest business weakness: Trying to be a sustainable business in San Francisco is really expensive.
Biggest risk: Putting more money and time into the business. We finally turned a profit last year.
Biggest mistake: We were undercapitalized and didn’t do things professionally at the start.
Smartest move: Hiring staff looking to grow with the company and having “open-book” accounting, where the dishwashers knew the gross profit and understood how breaking a dish impacted the bottom line.
Biggest worry: Growing too fast, and not delivering the same Samovar experience, mission and culture.
With close ties to the Far East, San Francisco has always been a beacon of the United States tea business. During a recent trip to the Bay area, WTN Contributing Editor Lindsey Goodwin spoke with leading tea room owners and tea retailers to get the pulse of the industry.
Participating were Roy Fong, co-founder of Imperial Tea Court, Jesse Jacobs, owner of Samovar Tea Lounge, Jill Portman, co-founder of Mighty Leaf Tea, Winnie Yu, founder of Teance, and Chongbin Zheng, co-founder of Red & Green Company. Highlights of the interviews follow.
WTN: What has been the most important change in the Bay Area tea scene since the American tea revival began?
Portman: There’s a really significant demand for whole leaf, but also for convenience. Customers won’t drink inferior quality in traditional bags, but now there are 20 to 30 companies offering similar products to ours, which we pioneered in the 1990s.
Yu: I think the biggest thing is the availability and recognition of high quality, premium loose-leaf tea. In the 1990s you were finding a lot of blended, herbal or black American-type teas. Now authentic, unblended, premium teas are much more available and appreciated.
Jacobs: I agree, but it’s more than just the tea. It’s the appreciation of the tea lifestyle and what tea represents, like awareness of health, relaxation, sustainability, artisanal products and Slow Food.
Fong: I think those things are important, but more importantly… You know how people drink tea in the Orient as a matter of course, like people in Italy drink coffee as a matter of course? People readily accept tea now, like “This is what you do.” It is so acceptable, you don’t even think of it as extraordinary, but it’s a drastic change from when I opened the first traditional Chinese tea house (in 1993), when people would ask, “Is it in a bag or not?” The first big step was getting beyond bags, and then the question was, “Is it a green tea or a black tea?” Now people know white tea and puer, and ask which region, year, factory and item number a puer is. These changes creep up on you, but it’s so drastic.
Zheng: Since 2005, there are many newspapers, publications, magazines, where people are talking about teas. People are really aware, and asking a lot of questions about teas. … Also, tea has expanded to many areas, and to a fusion of traditional and Western styles while staying pure. They’re in different geographical areas where you wouldn’t expect (them) to succeed, like Samovar in The Castro. There are even outlets in shopping malls, and the Asian Art Museum here has a lot of tea events and programs. … It’s very interesting – all types of people find access to tea. It’s almost like grassroots.
WTN: What are your thoughts on the current state of tea in the Bay Area?
Yu: We call this city “the hotbed of the tea renaissance.” Tea houses showcase teas through fusion and bridge the gap between ethnic shops that offer teas and more accessible, modernized and mainstream, but authentic, formats.
Jacobs: I believe the Bay Area is the epicenter for tea culture in North America, due in part to the weather, which works for hot and iced tea, and because there are many different cultures in a small area. Also, San Francisco is very progressive. It’s a hotbed of new ideas. I can’t think of another area in the world that has all those three things together. It has allowed tea culture to take off. Sure, people drink Moroccan mint tea in Morocco as daily life, but they definitely don’t drink Japanese gyokuro or tea from a samovar. There’s nowhere else with a more international tea culture.
Zheng: San Francisco is pretty provincial and small compared to New York. There’s less distraction. If you have five or six tea stores in the city, everybody knows. The level of competition is very high in terms of getting high quality teas. People in Berkeley and Palo Alto are also very into tea. I live in Marin County, and they include tea tastings in county fairs along with the art, crafts and local foods.
WTN: What are the major business trends in the industry now?
Fong: I think the industry will stabilize, like anything else. A few years ago, at the Fancy Food Show, there were many tea companies cropping up. Now there are fewer new businesses. There are companies who have built up reputations and consistency, and they will do well. In China, they say that people do not stay rich or poor for more than three generations, and a business rarely lasts longer than three generations, but the exception is tea. There’s so much to tea that one generation cannot learn it all.
Yu: Education and sustainability are big trends. We’re dealing with a very educated consumer here in the Bay Area, but the education level is still so far from where it needs to be for them to really appreciate these teas. We need to help people build their palates and learn about tea through classes and events.
Jacobs: Education is also one of our foundations, but not in terms of specific classes. Winnie (Yu) does that really well, and educates the public very deeply. (At Samovar) we like to share knowledge without making it overt. We like making it fun and easy, and letting it resonate on a deep level.
Portman: I think that tea starts with education. Without education, one isn’t drawn to a product.
WTN: What about sustainability?
Jacobs: Nowadays, people are super-sensitive and observant of sustainability. Is something good for me and my wallet and my taste buds and the environment? Will it make me feel good? Does it support the farmers? That’s the metric for our customers.
Zheng: Sustainable packaging materials are important, too. I use bamboo for about 70 percent of my packaging.
Portman: We use biodegradable, corn-based bags with unbleached cotton strings.
Fong: Five years ago, organic tea from China was not readily available. Now I sell close to 100 tons of organic tea a year, which is pretty phenomenal for a small company like mine. In retail, certified organic tea makes up 30 to 35 percent of my sales. I’m surprised fair trade didn’t take off. In the tea business, you have to sell organic tea, but you don’t have to sell fair trade tea. The fair trade people charge so much, there’s no motivation from the merchant side, because it costs so much. With organics, it’s easy for merchants to believe in it and sell it.
Portman: We work in a more project-based way as opposed to feeding the TransFair offices. We are creating a foundation just for that, and have been giving back to gardens for the last three to four years in the form of schools, eyeglass programs, a senior center. … Our volume is becoming quite significant, so we can ensure that our gardens are implementing best practices.
WTN: What are the local changes you’ve seen since the economic turbulence began?
Jacobs: We opened during the dot-com bust along with a bunch of other places. Now it’s the changing of the second guard. There are places that are opening and closing, because the reality of this industry is that it’s tough to make a profit.
Fong: It’s hard to make a living selling only tea. It’s even harder if you only sell what you like. Each place has to do something well. I try to get better at the things I excel in every day. Anywhere with that approach, I think they will succeed.
Yu: People are responding to sales more, but we still have the same clientele. There’s less foot traffic, but when they’re here they buy the same things. Maybe they’re just not leaving their homes, but our buying patterns are the same, and the expensive teas are still moving. Once people recognize a certain quality, it’s hard for them to give up. Tea is not a replaceable product for people. They just want to buy it a lower price.
Zheng: We just did a (retail) warehouse sale. Our teas sold like hotcakes.
Pull Quote: Jacobs: I think that people will pull back on bigger spending and continue to spend on tea like they did in the dot-com bust. Our average price point is $10, and our goal is to make you feel better than you did when you walked in. It’s like the cheapest spa treatment you’ll ever experience.
A cup of coffee is $4, and a pot of tea is $5 and makes 20 cups. It doesn’t matter how expensive it is if there’s value. Our downtown location is up 50 percent over last year, and Castro is up five percent. I think the economic stuff hasn’t settled in yet. I think we’ll know in six months, but in the meantime nothing has really changed. I have noticed that a lot of people became fans of this Japanese gyokuro we sell for $18 a pot after we added a $50 a pot gyokuro to the menu. It’s like they can get an idea of the $50 tea by buying the $18 tea, so the $18 gyokuro is now a best seller.