“Chain Store Style” Tea Shops

The issue of “chain store style” tea shops came up when I looked into a tea company that had sent me some samples to try. They turned out to be a “chain store style” tea shop. I wanted to stay focused on other aspects of that company, though, and postponed getting into the issue of these style shops for a separate article.

What Are “Chain Store Style” Tea Shops?
First, you might be wondering what I mean by “chain store style” tea shops. Simple. A bunch of tea shops owned or franchised by the same parent company. They look pretty much alike and have the same stock of teas and teawares in them. As the recognition of tea as a beverage worth noting in the U.S. and Canada grows, the market opens up for slick shops with rows of shiny tea tins, shelves bursting with brightly colored teawares, and tea bins overflowing with teas and herbals (usually labeled as “teas”) mostly flavored with all sorts of bits and pieces, along with a few straight teas. Thus the proliferation of these “chain store style” tea shops.

I repeat from the previous article: “To each his own” – no one is saying what a tea vendor should or should not be.

These stores usually cater to a wide range of tea tastes, relying on the aromas of the flavorings to create the appeal. It’s easier to mix in flavors people know and like than to educate them on what a nice Taiwan oolong should taste like and how to get several infusions out of the leaves.

The Downside of “Chain Store Style” Tea Shops
The biggest bugaboo with these stores is staff knowledge. Some seem to know more than the basics about tea while others do not, so you have a hit-or-miss experience. Not surprising. Tea is not a difficult subject to gain a superficial knowledge of, but it can take years to gain a really broad and in-depth knowledge. Still, employees should be able to tell genmaicha from sencha and keemun from assam. They should also have the sense to be aware of things like nut allergies and take care to keep the scoops for those teas that are mixed with nuts from also being used in those teas that are mixed with nuts. I have even heard of a tea shop employee that said they put their bamboo whisks used for the matcha in the dishwasher. Astounding! That doesn’t even take years of schooling to know. It’s common sense.

My visit to a tea shop in North Carolina awhile back was prompted by tweets with an employee there who sounded knowledgeable. Considering that this shop was a bit of a distance from my home, I made sure he was going to be there before driving all that way. He was able to show hubby and me a number of teas that suited what we were looking for. (He has since moved away, but the store owner taught him all he knew about tea, so I’m not worried should a return visit be made.)

The second biggest bugaboo is the focus on teas heavily flavored to appeal to people who know little if anything about tea. I’ve gotten comments from a number of people who say they liked all those flavored teas until they learned more about teas and all their subtle flavors and aromas. That certainly was my case. (I still enjoy Earl Grey, masala chais, and some teas flavored with real pieces of fruit such as mango and peach.) You will often be greeted with a small cup of the tea of the day, usually something flavored. Tea tastings are held but are often again for flavored teas.

The third bugaboo is that these shops don’t help people learn about tea but cater to whatever the customer thinks is tea already. Personally, I see such places having a role in raising knowledge up among their customers. But if they do, they end up losing those customers or needing to split their business into the mass appeal side and the specialty side that features single garden teas, teas processed in ancient traditional methods, single flushes, etc.

Smaller Tea Vendors vs “Chain Store Style” Tea Shops
The distinction also should be made between these “chain store style” shops and smaller tea vendors. There are those who specialize in flavored teas. These smaller vendors seem to have more of a connection to their flavored creations and, based on the ones I’ve tried, they aren’t just peddling tea of questionable quality hidden behind mint, fruit pieces, spices such as cinnamon, and who knows what all. There are also vendors who take the time to visit the tea gardens and know the growers and processors.

Tearooms vs “Chain Store Style” Tea Shops
Some are better than others. Tea options are often limited by necessity. They can’t stock everything. The same issue with staff tea knowledge exists and varies widely. My experience has been that tearoom staff usually know the teas they serve but little else. Some don’t even know that much, though, but you get a sit-down tea experience and some nice food choices that you don’t get in the tea shops.

Bottom Line:
As the saying goes, to every thing there is a season. I guess to every tea shopper there is a venue. Happy tea shopping!

© 2011 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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