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Brown Palace Hotel

Tea time at the Brown Palace Hotel involves ornate china, trays of finger food, and pastries.

Steeped in Tradition

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Old-fashioned tea houses show restaurants how to stir up the afternoon daypart.

By Barney Wolf October 2014

Just as specialty coffee shops became the late 20th century version of bars and taverns where people meet or hang out, the concept of serving hot or cold tea—with its healthy aura and lower caffeine volume—could do the same in the afternoon. Beloved by Europeans and Asians for centuries, tea is shedding its reputation as a bygone brew and giving the U.S. restaurant industry a few ideas along the way.

“The beauty of tea, more than coffee, is that it is a low preparation, low labor-cost item that has a higher margin than almost anything else on the menu,” says Brian Keating, a specialty tea market analyst and founder of Sage Group in Seattle.

“Later in the afternoon, people may not want coffee,” or a great deal of caffeine, and “they may step out of the office for tea,” says Joe McKinnon, national tea trainer and foodservice marketing coordinator for Oakland, California-based Numi Organic Tea.

In trendier areas, artistic tea drinks are gaining favor, McKinnon notes. “I see people in some establishments with tea and fruit mixers and tea spritzers and mocktails,” he says. He also sees tea and smoothie combinations gaining momentum, as diners seek a healthier version of a smoothie.

Hotels and teahouses have long offered afternoon tea to provide a mid-day repast and add business during a normally slow time, and more restaurants are catching on to the idea. “Some of the finer places will run upscale afternoon teas with cakes and finger sandwiches,” says Peter Goggi, president of the Tea Association of the USA. “They will prepare tea in a special way and serve it all with high-end china and silverware.”

There are now about 4,000 tea­houses in the United States, according to the association. One classic example of a European tearoom is Ladurée, which has operations in 25 countries, including three in the United States. The latest, in New York’s Soho neighborhood, is also a full-service restaurant and retail outlet.

Founded in 1862, the original Paris establishment is known for its pastries, such as the double-decker macaron, and quickly added a tearoom that became popular with women, who were not allowed in cafés at the time. Elisabeth Holder, co-president of Ladurée USA, acknowledges tea has not been as popular in America as in Europe, and ascribes that to a certain degree of cultural differences. “Here, the culture is to go fast, to eat and drink in the street, and not take the time to be together and share a pastry,” she explains.

But as Americans take an interest in eating slower meals, for both health reasons and personal gratification—another age-old tradition borrowed from Europe—experts say their interest in tea has grown, as well.

A more modern example of tea as a driver of afternoon business is at the three Samovar Tea Lounge locations and new Samovar Tea Bar, all in San Francisco. The tea lounges have tea services from various countries, while the tea bar is limited service. The Russian tea service ($24), for instance, has tarragon-marinated beets, smoked salmon, horseradish, pickled egg, crackers, fresh fruit, Russian tea cookie, and Tolstoy’s Sip, an organic Chinese black tea blended with natural bergamot oil.

“Samovar is popular among the high-tech community and all the creative types,” says Josh Jacobs, marketing director for the family business.

The teas include some that are mixed, like the Golden Phoenix, a $17-dollar oolong tea with acacia blossom, stewed nectarines, and white truffle. A few teas incorporate bobas, the tapioca pearls typically found in bubble tea, and there’s also a matcha shake.

The tea bar makes it easy to get tea, priced from $3 to $5, and a scone, priced around $4, for a reasonable price. Jacobs notes business is peaking in the mid-afternoon as people seek a coffee alternative. “We brew the tea to order and pour it into a cocktail shaker where it’s shaken before serving.”

La Residence, a 38-year-old Chapel Hill, North Carolina, restaurant with an American twist on classic French food, added a traditional English-style afternoon tea last year that has drawn good business. The eatery has afternoon teas once a week, typically Thursday, and is working with fellow Chapel Hill business The Blakemere Company, which specializes in making handmade foods from authentic English recipes.

“We thought it would be a way to introduce people to dining out at a different time of the day, and maybe a different set of people than at dinner,” says La Residence owner Frances Gualtieri. The restaurant also does teas for bridal showers, baby showers, and other events.

In Columbus, Ohio, Mozart’s Bakery and Piano Café has been serving an afternoon tea for about 15 years, and “it’s very European,” says co-owner Anand Sahi. Along with loose-leaf tea, it features scones with Devonshire cream and fruit preserves, a canapé plate with items like cucumber with dill and sour cream, and a pastry plate. “It’s a way for people to get away or just spend a little quality time. For us, it’s a great way to bring in people during the day,” he says.

Afternoon teas have been a mainstay at fine hotels nationwide, held in ornate lobbies as well as main dining rooms. That includes Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel. “It’s one of the busiest tea rooms in the country, with very ornate china, trays of finger foods, great pastries,” says the Sage Group’s Keating. “It does very well and has for decades.”

Keating says he noticed during a visit that the Brown Palace had more men at the afternoon tea than other places did. Kevin Bird, senior food and beverage manager at the venue, says it’s not because of any special marketing push but because of the hotel’s reputation. “You are getting these guys doing power lunches for so long that this is a change,” he says. “They can enjoy the delicacies of tea and pastries and still have a meeting.”

Setting time aside for an afternoon beverage and something to eat has been at the heart of Sonic’s Happy Hour, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Many beverages are half price. The brewed green iced tea can be paired with five flavor mix-ins: peach, mango, raspberry, blackberry, and mint, and Jason Acock, assistant manager of corporate communications, says tea sales, like other beverages, bubble upward during this promotion.

The biggest boost to afternoon tea sales may come from Starbucks, which has parlayed its acquisition of Teavana two years ago into a variety of new teas at Starbucks stores and the creation of Teavana Tea Bars, now in four major cities. “Tea is a huge market: the second-most consumed beverage in the world after water,” Scott Maw, the company’s chief financial officer, said during an investors’ conference in June. “It’s a bigger market than coffee, and it’s growing faster than coffee.”

The tea bars have tea and food during various dayparts, along with tea lattes, tea smoothies, tea fusions, and sparkling iced teas, often priced at $4.95 for 12 ounces. Fusion drinks include the Blackberry Mojito Lime Cooler and a Teavana Blackberry Mojito green tea shaken with ginger limeade, blackberries, and mint.

Starbucks stores are seeing the influence of the tea company, with several Teavana-branded shaken iced teas that do particularly well in the mid-afternoon. The teas are shaken 10 times to ensured that all the ingredients are cooled down and mixed right.

Even though Teavana is a competitor of brands like Numi Organic Tea, the push by Starbucks is likely to boost afternoon sales of all types of iced teas. “A rising tide raises all ships,” McKinnon says. “It is raising the awareness of tea, and we are already seeing that.”

This story will run in the winter 2015 edition of RestaurantBev magazine.