Which is the Right Tea Vendor for You?

Picking a tea vendor is tricky business, especially with so many to choose from and so many factors to consider. World Tea News shares this advice from vendors and tea room owners on finding the right fit.

Quality first

In picking your vendor, the quality of the tea he or she offers seems so obvious a factor, it almost goes without saying, but determining quality takes care. Benjamin Harrison, Rishi’s co-owner, said the only way to be sure about quality is to cup similar teas from multiple vendors at the same time.

Talk to me

Kelli Bernard, owner and buyer of Amai Tea and Bake House, said communication is the most important aspect of customer service to her. Each tea room has its own unique needs, which can be accommodated by different vendors’ varying styles of customer service.

For example, Rishi has a reputation for empowering individual businesses, Art of Tea is known as “the fun guys” with high-tech quality control, and TeaGschwendner uses its position as the world’s largest tea retailer to bring buying power, quality and experience to customers.

Bernard described follow-through as “critical,” adding, “It is really great to have someone that understands your business and supports what you are doing. This can be as simple as sending a sample of a new tea they think you will like, or asking if you need to reorder” – without using it as an opportunity to just push new product.

Beth Johnston, founder and CEO of Teas, Etc, said that if you “wear a hundred hats” and do not have much time to select teas, then good communication and positive relationships with vendors are especially important.

New tea room owners, in particular, need vendors who can help educate them. Anupa Mueller, owner and CEO of Eco Prima Tea, said new business owners should look for a vendor that can help them understand differences between subcategories of teas, origin and seasonality, as well as how to steep, taste, describe, package, price and serve tea.

How’s business?

According to sources, stability during growth is another key quality to look for in vendors.

Harrison asked, “What are you going to want and need in one year, five years, 10 years?” If you’re going to expand, you’ll need someone who can distribute large orders to multiple locations, added Charles Cain, director of operations for TeaGschwendner U.S.

Steve Schwartz, founder and CEO of Art of Tea, advised finding out each candidate’s availability of core teas, especially just before the next season’s first flush, when many vendors run out of essential teas. Watch for consistency of flavor across orders, he said.

Bernard also said she looks for consistency of inventory.

Multiple vendors

Most vendors carry a wide selection of teas (often upward of 100), but you may still want to consider sourcing from multiple vendors. Harrison said, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket; take advantage of the fact that the supply chain has grown so much in the last 10 years.”

If you do decide to go the multiple vendor route, consider vendors with different specializations and unique offerings. Find out who’s good at what by asking vendors which teas are their top sellers.

Unique offerings include organic and/or fair trade selections (especially those from China), proprietary or unusual blends, flavored oolongs or whites, very high-end teas and rare flowering or shaped teas.

What’s it worth?

Price is an important factor. However, the right combination of quality and price (aka value) is often more important. A good vendor will be willing to share which of their teas have the best value.

For instance, Cain said TeaGschwendner’s best values are Nepalese teas with quality and flavor similar to Darjeelings at a lower price, while Johnston said she had flowering teas that are vacuum-sealed at origin with a picture of each on the packaging at 62-65 cents each.

Other Factors

Of course, there are many other potential factors to consider, depending on your business model:

• Do they do custom blends*, customer events* and exclusive imports*?

• Do they offer discounts on large orders* or have minimum order requirements?

• Do they offer free shipping* or in-person staff training*?

• Is it a green business (sustainable facilities, packaging, energy sources, etc.)?

• What percentage of their products are organic/fair trade?

• What are shipping and turn-around times?

*Usually only provided with larger orders or on a per-customer basis

Picking tea vendors is tricky business, especially with so many to choose from. With so much recent growth in the U.S. tea industry, tea room owners can expect to find wide selections and high quality of tea at the very least, but those are only two of many factors to consider when choosing vendors. WTN talked to five long-time vendors to get their take on how to find the right fit.

Education and Communication

A prospective vendor should be able to spend time teaching you about his or her teas and talk to you about them in a way you’re comfortable with.

Anupa Mueller, Eco Prima Tea’s owner and CEO, and Beth Johnston, Teas, Etc’s founder and CEO, said education and communication are the most important things to look for in vendors. Mueller said you need vendors to walk you through the differences between subcategories of teas, origins and seasonalities, as well as how to steep, taste, describe, package, price and serve tea.

Johnston added that if you “wear a hundred hats” and do not have much time to select teas, then good communication and positive relationships with vendors are especially important.

Stability During Growth

Other interviewees said stability during growth is the most important quality to look for in vendors. Benjamin Harrison, Rishi’s co-owner, asked, “What are you going to want and need in one year, five years, ten years?” Charles Cain (TeaGschwendner U.S.’s director of operations) and Steve Schwartz (Art of Tea’s CEO and founder) emphasized the necessity of distribution of large orders to multiple outlets during tea room expansion, and Harrison advised looking for pricing incentives based on economies of scale. Harrison and Cain pointed out the importance of ongoing availability of core teas, especially just before the next season’s first flush, when many vendors run out of essential teas. Flavor consistency across orders is another important aspect of stability, Schwartz added.

Other Factors

These are the core qualities and capabilities to look for in potential vendors, but there are many more. Here are a few to consider in your vendor search:

Custom blends*

Customer events*

Exclusive imports*

Free shipping*

Green vendor practices

Minimum orders

Organic/ fair trade tea selection

Rare teas

Staff training*

Tea Peripherals
*Typically provided with larger orders or on a per-customer basis