Little was left to chance last night (23 October 2013) at an exclusive preview of Teavana’s new Fine Teas + Tea Bar in NYC. A car service delivered attendees to the Madison Ave store to help assure everyone arrived conveniently, comfortably, and in the most agreeable mood possible.
Media members from NPR, food and lifestyle publications, and tea publications were on hand. Starbucks and Teavana execs were there as well.
As an event, it was delightful. The design and feel of the store brings an element of Starbucks with some Oriental styling.
And to the keen observer, there were other, noteworthy aspects about how Starbucks + Teavana view tea and tea customers.
In a way, the store is like a new animal trying to evolve within an established environment. If a dinosaur had the power and awareness to know it needed to become a bird, it would shed pounds, hollow out its bones, and think feathery thoughts. Its body would be in conflict to rid itself of flight-inhibiting parts. I expect the same to be true of the new Teavana store.
On one side is the wall of loose leaf teas and some teaware. The teaware selection is much subdued compared to the earlier Teavana stores in the mall. The wall has roughly 100 loose teas to explore. This side says, “Come and learn to appreciate teas. Take some home to enjoy.”
Across from the tea wall is the tea bar and food service. This side is were tea drinks are actually served. A selection of cold teas, tea inspired drinks, and tea-inspired food can be had. This side says “Grab a cup and go, or sit down for food and beverage.” The tea bar side is intended for those who want to grab a cup of tea and food. This is the side where a line will form as customers wait for their order.
But in order to see the full selection of 100 or so teas available, you have to step to the Wall of Tea side of the store. And tea is often about education. How easily can customers learn about teas and discover new teas they like from such a large selection on one side of the store, then go to the other side and wait in line to get their tea (and possibly food)? If I had to guess, most customers will stay on the tea bar side and never really move beyond a narrow spectrum of what “tea” is. I would anticipate the loose tea and teaware side to shrink in size as this animal evolves.
The Use of Space
The space is quite large. Considering the economics of selling tea, food and product to cover rent, evolution will likely result in the area dedicated to the Wall of Tea getting cannibalized to facilitate more food service. There are about 3 small tables, each with seating for 2 people. There is a long counter with a handful of additional seats. Hardly enough seating if you are trying to sell a sit-down light meal in the middle of the day. The increased use of cafe space will jibe with Schultz’s expectation that tea consumers will occur more throughout the day compared to the morning rush for coffee at a Starbucks.
One feature especially shines as a beacon for tea service. The Teavana store is one of the first to use the Bkon TX. This fancy piece of equipment delivers the equivalent of a 5-minute steep time in roughly 90 seconds. For tea food service, Bkon TX is a godsend. Stodgy tea purists may complain that such technology cannot deliver the quality of a traditional steeping process. But neither the stodgy purists nor the tech proponents have sufficient data on blind tastings, chemical composition of infusions, etc. to claim one steeping method is sure-footed on the high ground.
I watched the Bkon steep a tie guan yin oolong and was impressed. Finally there is a real, teabag-free option that gives loose leaf tea a fighting chance in the quick-service competition for the morning grab-and-go cup.
The tea itself seems to have changed very little from what Teavana used to offer. Their Monkey-Picked Oolong Imperial Reserve retails for $24.98 for 2 oz, and is less than dazzling. The Starbucks newsroom calls the selection “carefully curated,” but I remain unconvinced that over 100 teas can get careful consideration in terms of customers’ preferred steeping parameters and favored food pairings. If Teavana succeeds at passing off mediocre specialty tea at these prices, there is good news for competitors with higher quality.
Overall, the growing presence of Teavana across North America will provide new and better offerings for tea drinkers, but the Teavana I saw that day will not last long in its current form.
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