I’m pretty convinced, after being an observer of the industry for so many years, that if you want to start a serious tea shop in anything other than a major city in the United States, you either need very, very deep pockets, a unique town that has a critical mass of people who will buy that kind of stuff, or you need to compromise.
Compromise can come in many forms.Â The most common is probably coffee, but it can also be bubble tea, or other tea “smoothie” drinks.Â Other than coffee, the rest are usually sugar laden high caloric vehicles.Â We’re genetically programmed to like things that are sweet and fat, whereas something bitter is usually an acquired taste.Â It’s no wonder tea is less popular when drunk straight.
I recently visited a small town that had a store like that, but are now going out of business.Â Even though it has a nice liberal arts college nearby and a population that’s generally considered the more tree-hugging, outdoor loving liberal type, a tea store still can’t make ends meet.Â I am guessing they didn’t sell tea online, and didn’t have enough operating income from their store to keep it going.Â I can see why — selling pounds of tea (if it comes to pounds at all) won’t get you all that much money.Â Brewing it on the spot is probably a much higher margin business, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have enough foot traffic, you’re doomed.
It’s too bad, really, but there’s probably nothing to be done.Â Even in big cities, such as Boston, tea-only stores struggle and generally don’t do much more than selling very generic teas.Â It’s a tough business, and the online competition is just very stiff.Â They have much lower overhead and can offer a wide variety of stuff, whereas a physical store is always going to cost more and be able to offer less.Â Serious tea drinkers tend to just go online, buy a bunch of samples, and then buy the few they like in bulk.Â Given population density, etc, I honestly don’t see that changing any time soon, no matter how much more tea Americans drink.
The most successful tea store I’ve seen in a smaller city in the US is one that I went to in Syracuse, NY, called Roji.Â They still did bubble tea, but had just enough for the tea addict (me) to feel comfortable.Â It seems like they’re still alive; I hope they will be for years to come.