Delighting the Senses at The Urban Tea Merchant

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada

Drinking tea, according to The Urban Tea Merchant co-founders Karinna and Tom James, should be a sensory-rich experience. At their Vancouver, B.C., tea boutique and salon, tea connoisseurs can revel in a veritable playground for the senses.

The 3,000-square-foot tea retailer is lodged amidst the luxury hotels and high-end shops that line the wide boulevards a stone’s throw from the port city’s Coal Harbor. This luxury lifestyle boutique and salon encompasses a wide expanse of retail space with a horseshoe-shaped tea bar; a carefully curated home decor selection; and a tea-tasting bar where the resident tea sommelier helps customers parse the finer points of pu-erh or mull over a good matcha.

The first teashop of its kind in North America, The Urban Tea Merchant views tea as a gateway to the finer things in life. Luxury is evident throughout. From the Jacquard linens draping the mahogany shelving to the bejeweled porcelain teapots handmade in France, to the handcrafted chocolates from London to the elegant room diffusers and aromatic teas blended with a perfumer’s knowledge of how to best create a balanced, yet heady, blend.

Yet, it’s not just luxury for the sake of luxury, co-founder Tom James points out. “We are creating an experience. The essence of tea calls for living in the moment and honoring relationships, and we create every sensory experience to help customers connect with that moment,” he says. “Here, we honor what tea represents and do it in a luxurious way.”

Urban Tea MerchantThe salon, housed on the second floor of the expansive space, is the gateway to the retail operation, says Karinna James. In the pink-walled room, visitors enjoy a full afternoon tea service where they are free to “sniff” before ordering, as evidenced by the attentive wait staff juggling the oversize pink and green tins that they generously tip toward the discerning tea drinker. White linens and porcelain cups dress the tables where customers are enveloped by the subtle sounds of water tippling through a teapot-festooned water feature.

In between bites of French macaroons, delicate cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches, tiny tarts, chocolate-covered strawberries, and Lapsang Souchong-infused chicken salad stuffed in a tiny waffle cone, visitors are making tea decisions that will eventually carry them back down to the retail home decor area.

That’s the intent, says Karinna, who has carefully gathered the collection of home decor items. A four-month world expedition with Tom to London, Paris, Istanbul, Calcutta, Chiang Mai, Nairobi, Munich and many more tea-centric locations helped shape and inform The Urban Tea Merchant’s vision.

Tea Totals

The tea salon contributes 35 percent of total sales, while 65 percent is earned on the first floor that houses the retail operation, tea bar and the loose-leaf tea collection. Average ticket in the salon hover around $28 while the retail section the average ticket climbs to $40.

The Urban Tea MerchantThe Urban Tea Merchant’s flagship store has enjoyed a considerable growth spurt since opening in 2009. The owners report a 48 percent leap in sales.

The downtown store followed a pattern of success established at its smaller West Vancouver sister boutique, which opened in 2004. The original boutique and salon reported impressive sales numbers with a 24 percent annual increase in sales for several years before hitting a short-lived plateau in 2008. Now on an upswing, reports Karinna, the firm aims to hit and possibly exceed the $1 million mark by the end of 2012.

Transported by Tea

In keeping with the theme of “exciting of the senses”, the tea selection doesn’t disappoint. More than 200+ offerings of rare, fine harvests and premium traditional single origin teas housed in large pink and green canisters line one wall of the boutique. Aromatics – The Urban Tea Merchant’s signature offering — make up a dominant share of the tea menu.

Top sellers among the aromatics are French Earl Grey, black tea imbued with bergamot and flecked with blue cornflowers; the Napoleon, a rich black tea infused with caramel and chocolate; and Geisha Blossom, a green tea flavored with fresh peaches. Traditional − but certainly not run-of-the-mill − Darjeelings, Assams, Japanese greens and oolongs rank high on the popularity chart, as well.

Steeping Staff in Tea Culture

Urban Tea MerchantThe staff of 35, a combination of chefs, cooks, tea tenders, servers, retail personnel, and a tea sommelier are well-versed in the nuances of tea and the tenets of quality service. A touch point for staff training is the company’s tagline, “every sip is a journey,” and the James’ want that trip to be a sensory, memorable experience.

“In order for staff to be able to create an experience for the customer, we provide them with extensive training and development,” says Tom, who along with partner Karinna, draw on their previous careers in leadership development and business consulting to create a workplace culture that supports their company mission. Weekly two-hour meetings pull together staff to broaden their skills in tea preparation and service, as well as leadership and teamwork.

Tea as Community Builder

Many of the Urban Tea Merchant’s customers are well-heeled but there are also appreciative foodie with a keen appreciation for tea and its culinary couplings. A mix of Vancouverites, tourists from London and the United States, business travelers, predominantly 25 and up, flock to the shop that bustles throughout its 10 a.m. -7 p.m. workday.

Urban Tea MerchantAnd, those customers are loyal to a fault. If it’s not daily, then weekly or monthly, Vancouverites trek to The Urban Tea Merchant for their fix of finery, their ration of rare fine harvests or a high tea fit for a queen. With a 7,000-strong mailing list of members reading their monthly newsletter, a robust social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and a timely blog, the James duo is spreading the word that high-quality tea and all its accoutrement is something to seek out.

Their loyal following is the result of consistent community building efforts such as their spring Sakura Festival. A celebration of the blooming cherry tree held under the canopy of the cotton candy-like blossoms outside the boutique saw Japanese dancers and musicians perform for customers. A portion of the proceeds was donated to the city for additional plantings of the iconic harbinger of spring. Various fundraisers, including a recent event with the cast of the soap opera, The Young and the Restless, help funnel monies to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Not a shop to let a marketable event pass them by, they fêted the royal couple throughout the month of April, with a high tea fit for a newly married princess replete with truffles also served at the Royal Wedding.

The James’ wholesale teas to a variety of high-end restaurants, luxury hotels and retail locations, including a recently acquired client, Bergdorf Goodman’s. Their online marketplace, still in the ‘baby’ stages, contributes less than 5 percent to overall sales, yet they see this as a viable income stream ripe with potential for growth.

Luxury is being well-received in the Vancouver market, so expansion is in the future, according to Tom. No desire to be a chain tea emporium, The Urban Tea Merchant will handpick its next home in Canada or the Western United States and create another inviting space for tea lovers to soak their senses while they sip.