Tea Lounge Aims to be Community Hub at Home and Abroad

BROOKLYN, New York

Ready to give up the daily grind of a traditional 9 to 5, Jonathan Spiel left a good career in advertising to open a cafe. But for Spiel, who opened his first Tea Lounge cafe in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, NY in 2001 and his second in 2003, the cafe had to have an identity in the community.

“This idea of creating a community-based environment in a cafe felt very appealing to me. It had to be a place where people could feel at home. I have tasked my employees with building these relationships that will support the community so in turn, the community will support us,” Spiel explained.wtn121025_thp_tealounge_exterior

In 2007, Spiel closed the first location after the landlord sought a hefty increase on the rent. He allowed his lease on the inaugural space to expire and focused his energy on making the remaining location a success.

“We don’t have a milk station and a sugar station like every other cafe. We stir your milk in and add your sugar for you. So when you grab a drink — after you’ve paid $5 for it—and you take it a sip, it’s what you ordered,” said Spiel. “Those little things that we do are very important to the business.”

The second store was much larger and allowed him to do much more in the community. The Tea Lounge is always crowded with laptop users taking advantage of the free wi-fi. Its offerings also include relaxed, family friendly entertainment like music five nights a week, storytelling and sing-alongs for kids; open mic nights, story slams and a gallery were local artists showcase their work. The cafe supports a Little League team, as well as various charities and churches in the area.

“I wanted to offer customers several reasons to come back in each day,” Spiel maintained.

Teas here make up about 20-25% of the sales. The Tea Lounge’s 16 employees serve up some 65 different types of organic, fair trade, loose leaf tea to about 500 customers per day. Other sales come from organic, fair-trade coffees, baked goods, hot sandwiches, breakfast and salads, as well as bar elements.

Tea Lounge-pastriesTea servings come in a pot for one or two. The Tea Lounge’s Chai Tea Latte is made with fresh chai tea and is dwarfed in popularity by the Moroccan Mint tea, which also happens to be served in the cafe’s signature iced tea cocktail, the Moroccan Mojito. The drinkadds rum and mint leaves served in a martini glass.

The Tea Lounge sells a small amount of private label tea, but with the planned expansion that will all change. Spiel is taking the Tea Lounge concept international. The first franchise will be in Kuwait with

a planned opening by year’s end; additional locations in Kuwait will open in the next two years.

About a year ago, franchise representatives approached Spiel about a partnership. “They were looking for an interesting cafe concept. We are excited to be entering the Kuwait market, as we feel that the local residents will embrace Tea Lounge’s community and social experience,” said Spiel, who traveled to Kuwait earlier this year to help scout a location and learn more about the culture.

The Kuwaiti location will not include alcoholic beverages to fit the community culture.

Looking back on his success, Spiel offered this advice: “To get into this industry, one should know there is huge potential for growth, but you must first get to know your environment/potential customers.”

And, “To expand a tea concept internationally, be sure to do your due diligence on the company or individual looking to partner and grow the brand in their respective country. Be sure to hire an attorney, who deals with international franchise law so you are covered,” Spiel said.

In order to compete against bigger brands, Spiel said owners should talk up the health benefits of drinking tea, and most importantly, “Have some fun with this business.”

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