If coffee service is near the bottom of the typical restaurant's priority list, tea enjoys the lonely distinction of being omitted from the party entirely. If you believe that scant few of your clients drink tea, think again. A restaurant patron's reluctance to order tea can be easily attributed to his or her typical experience. How many of your patrons would order the soup of the day if their request was greeted with a bowl of hot water and a bouillon cube? Sadly, tea preparation ordinarily takes the equivalent approach.
Tea is the world's most popular beverage next to water and has been consumed for nearly 5,000 years. While tea consumption in the U.S. is slight when compared to Asia, Ireland, and the UK, an average of 127 million Americans drink tea each day. That's over 40% of the population drinking tea on any given day, albeit largely iced tea. There is no doubt that tea drinking is on the rise, as 2007 was the 16th consecutive year of growth in U.S. tea sales. While this figure includes retail sales as well, it is important for restaurant operators to know that tea sales in restaurants and cafes have grown by more than 10% each year in the past decade. Chances are that your dining room sees its share of tea drinkers. Are you meeting their needs and taking the opportunity to make a lasting, positive impression?
Bag the Bag
While tea is truly an ancient beverage, the teabag is a relatively new adaptation in service. The first tea bag was believed to be the creation of New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, in 1904. While the innovation made it easy for tea drinkers to enjoy their favorite brew with ease, today's commercial tea bags are filled with the lowest grades of tea:fannings and dust (yes, these are actual grades used by tea professionals). The bottom line is that if you have drunk tea solely from the teabag, your knowledge of tea is relegated to tea's cellar of quality. Are you offering the bottom of the heap to your guests? To offer a true and excellent tea experience to your guests use what the pros and connoisseurs use — loose tea.
Serving tea is far from a mysterious and involved procedure; in fact, it couldn't be easier. In the typical restaurant setting, the standard 16-oz. ceramic teapot is the ideal tea service vehicle. These teapots can be found at most restaurant supply houses, they are relatively inexpensive, and they are dishwasher safe. Many teapots are fitted with a wire mesh insert designed to keep the tea leaves from pouring in to the cup, which also makes for fast and easy clean-up. Whatever you choose, do not use a French press or any other vessel once used for coffee! Coffee flavors are easily embedded in the pot or press and will seriously taint the tea. Once your teapots are secured the only other required hardware is a kettle or hot water source capable of providing boiling, or near-boiling water. Common counter-top electric kettles are an easy and inexpensive solution. Serving quality loose tea is very green — even when using black tea!
Brewing tea is a simple process but it does require you to be aware of the variety of tea being served. Black teas are the strongest of the teas. Black teas are intentionally allowed to oxidize (known as fermentation to the tea merchant, although it is not a true fermentation) for a period of about four hours allowing the chlorophyll to break down and release natural tannins and flavor compounds. Green and white teas are dried rather quickly after being picked to assure that oxidation does not take place. This process results in teas that most resemble the freshly picked tea leaf. Oolong teas are partially oxidized, for roughly two hours, before being dried, thus halting this natural occurrence. This technique produces a style that is a mid-way point between green and black teas, having the fresh and grassy green qualities of green tea while possessing some of the depth in both color and flavor found in black teas.
Black tea is best produced with water at, or near, boiling temperature to activate the essential oils and release flavors and aromas created during oxidation. To get the best extraction, heating the teapot with hot water prior to brewing is advised as this inhibits the inevitable temperature drop. The ideal steeping time varies from one tea to another, and your tea merchant will provide this information. Two minutes is a median time. Green teas are absolutely wrecked by boiling water, preferring water at roughly 180° F. Don't feel the need to get your thermometer out for each serving, as simply pouring nearly boiling water into a cool teapot, adding a shot of cold water and allowing it sit for a brief moment will get tea to the desired temperature. Oolong, being in the middle, prefers a water temperature between green and black, roughly 190° F but it will not suffer in hotter temperatures.
At the table serve quality sugar(s) along with your tea. Conoisseurs often prefer white candy sugar as it offers sweetness without any robust flavors that may overshadow the subtle nuances of the tea. However, your guests will welcome any quality sugar. Some patrons prefer the addition of milk or cream to tea but this is most often used with the darkest and most assertive black teas.
Reading the Tea Leaves for Great Profits
Quality loose tea is available to the commercial client at roughly seven cents per gram. (Prices vary greatly but this is a good average.) A 16-oz. pot requires six grams of tea translating to roughly 42 cents in raw costs. A pot of quality tea can easily and fairly be sold for $2.75. You don't need an abacus to calculate the impressive returns.
The affirmative attributes of tea service are plentiful. Tea is part of a healthy lifestyle, it is environmentally friendly, it's steeped (pardon the pun) in history, and its consumption and understanding among U.S. consumers is on a rapid ascension. Tea offers you, the restaurant operator, a simple and profitable way to please your clients and build loyalty. Every aspect of service should be so easy.