The increased use of loose-leaf tea in cafés and restaurants has been a most pleasing evolution to us tea aficionados. Not all cafés have dumped the stale bag for a better, fresher, more exotic offering, but the ones that have are indeed seeing an increase in the amount of tea they are selling. Simply by adopting a loose-leaf tea program will, in most cases, generate higher tea sales for your cozy, little nook.

You need to ask yourself, though, how much of an increase you would like to experience with the loose-leaf tea you are now selling.

Would you like it to go from 12% to 18%? Would that please you? How about an increase from 12% to 35%, or even as high as 45-50%? These numbers are achievable for any café owners who put a little thought into how they prepare and serve their loose-leaf tea offering.

Elation Turns to Dismay

When I walk into a café and see that they are using loose leaves and not a packaged line of teas, I almost always get excited. This initial elation is, for the most part, short lived, as I watch the servers scoop my selection out of the tin and stuff it into an open-ended tea sac. I know that without even trying the tea, I will get a compromised and muted version of what those leaves could potentially give up. If just a little extra care had been taken by the owners to prepare the tea so that all of it’s flavor and subtle nuances would be evident in my cup, I along with many others, would return to this spot again and again. A superior cup of tea is a superior cup of tea no matter who makes it and where it happens to be and is indeed a rarity to stumble upon in the café world.

Muted Taste or an Excellent Cup

In reality, it is simple to set up a system for tea service that you can repeat over and over, that has high production capability, and that will respect all the proper steeping principles that are essential to serving an outstanding cup of tea. Scooping the tea into a disposable tea bag is not the answer, no matter how much convenience you may think this provides to your establishment. The resulting cup of tea that you get from a tea sac is only a little better than what you get with a standard gourmet tea bag. If that is as far as you are willing to go with your loose-leaf tea service, then you should just save the effort, spend more of your hard-earned dollars and return to the excessively packaged bagged tea. Your loose-leaf program is really just an elaborate façade, nothing more than a way for you to make customers think you’re into tea, but really could not be bothered to take the necessary steps to prepare and serve it properly.

If you think that I am overstating the importance of proper loose-leaf tea preparation in a busy café environment, I challenge you to do what I have done countless times. Make yourself two cups of the same loose-leaf tea, one using a tea sac and the other using a Brewt or Adagio’s Ingenuitea (a bottom-dispensing device). Keep all the variables the same. You don’t even have to be into tea to notice the stark difference between the two. If you were handed them blindly, you’d think you were drinking two different teas.

So, you should ask yourself after this: Do I want to continue selling my customers a mediocre cup of loose-leaf tea, or do I want them to be blown away with a great cup of tea? I would love to be the recipient of the latter.

When I get new customers started with a loose-leaf tea program, I teach them how to expeditiously prepare it so that a cup of properly steeped tea ends up in the customer’s hands about every 2.5 minutes, no longer than it takes to make any coffee or tea latte off the menu. Will the customer wait the 3 minutes or so for the perfect cup? The answer is yes, as long as it is in their hands within the 3 minutes, which is

always achievable. If it were my café, I would be encouraging you to stay, have a seat, and let us bring it to you in ceramic.

The Inherent and Hidden Costs

The costs of using tea sacs are numerous, with the most obvious one being that you are adding about 7 cents onto your cost of goods sold (COGS). Couple that with the other problems inherent in using open-ended tea bags, like fumbly staff fidgeting with getting the sacs open and getting the tea inside, like the fact they wick the hot liquid up the paper and onto your hands or table, and like the fact that they alter and mute the taste of the tea. Add it all up and you’ll realize that there are no reasons to consider using them or switching to them.

The Solution

If you want to drive your hot tea sales into territory that you have never experienced before, here is what you need to do:

  • Stop serving your loose-leaf tea in tea sacs.
  • Adopt a pour-over tea bar that uses a bottom-dispensing tea steeper (numerous versions are now available).
  • Position the tea service area front and center for all the patrons to see.
  • Train the staff so that they understand exactly what they are serving and how to serve it properly, engaging the customer, if they can.
  • Let anyone who wishes to, sample any tea you have from your selection prior to purchasing.

If you adopt just these five steps in your café with your loose-leaf tea program, you will start to see your tea sales climb and reach levels you have never achieved before. I say this with good confidence, because that is what I teach newbies and that is pretty much what has transpired after the system is in place.

Eliminating one more piece of manufactured packaging material that was born out of someone’s idea of convenience is always a step in the right direction, money in your pocket and one more tree left standing to help clean up our choked biosphere. I bet we would all rather be part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem.


Brendan Waye

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