Tea, The American Way

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.

Rich, warm colors and textures with a bouquet of fascinating aromas greet one at The American Tea Room, situated in a tony Beverly Hills. It exemplifies the traditional and much beloved qualities of the tea experience.

David Barenholtz and Randy ArnoldCo-owners Randy Arnold and David Barenholtz have combined their spirits, tastes and business backgrounds to create a store experience which customers crave. Barenholtz designed the store to engage all five senses. The interior offers rich warm colors with an artfully curated mix of woods, tile and metal that conveys a gender-neutral look. Teas are arranged by region with scent-sampling (smelling) stations that offer loose tea you can smell and touch. Design-centric teaware native to each region is featured at these stations. Store lighting creates artistic patterns, complemented with pretty, soft music playing in the background.

The store has won awards for its design – some describe it as the Ralph Lauren of the tea world. It’s been on Oprah’s O list, and she consulted with the owners when building her own tea house in Montecito, California.

The store features samples of hot and cold iced teas each day and there is a tea bar to enjoy bigger cups of the brews with goodies to munch on.

The owners launched as Le Palais des Thés (a French franchise) eight years ago, and subsequently bought and rebranded the store when the initial license period ran out. They renamed it The American Tea Room, to reflect their philosophy of melding the worldwide cultures of tea to create a uniquely American tea experience. Arnold was in the studio motion picture marketing biz, while Barenholtz has dealt in high-end art for years, and most recently owned Apex Fine Art Gallery in Beverly Hills David Gallery in Culver City.

Both owners sought out fine tearooms in the countries they visited around the world, and endeavored to bring that experience to Los Angeles. They still travel far and wide to source a range of quality teas geared toward tea connoisseurs and novices alike.

Because they’ve been at this so long, they are now entitled to purchase very small and exclusive lots of select teas that are essentially impossible for most stores around the world to get. “Many teas are unique to our store,” according to Barenholtz. “We seek out teas you won’t find elsewhere.”

One of the most popular is Nirvana, a blend of Japanese Sencha, berries, figs and kiwi that retails for $15 (100 grams). A typical transaction consists of four $15 bags of tea with an accessory, says Barenholtz. The average ticket is $89 and often tops $100 during the fourth quarter when teaware sales peak. Food service represents 4 percent of sales. Yet the The American Tea Room grossed $1.5 million last year largely from premium loose leaf teas which account for 60 percent of total sales.

American Tea RoomAn ambitious schedule of classes and events at the store is designed to educate customers about tea, to share the owners’ passion with fellow drinkers, and to take the mystery out of what makes a good tea. Clients may get a whole new vision of tea, notes Barenholtz, who says, “We encourage people to treat tea as a fine food.”

Some events have combined tea with themes of movies such as From Russia With Love, The King’s Speech and The Last Emperor. The store caters private parties, and can create special themes for these, including food to pair with the teas.

Barenholtz said the store creates unique gift packages for many companies. It also caters to special clients, such as singer/songwriter Skyler Grey, who happened to pop into the store during this interview with World Tea News. Grey is on the road a good deal, and gets her favorite packages of tea sent to her.

Our largest sale ever was to the Crown Princess of Saudi Arabia as a gift to her husband – now the ruling monarch – a gift package of more than $30,000. American Tea Room has also created custom gift sets for celebrity weddings and is frequently included in Academy Awards and Grammy Gift Baskets.

To encourage customers to broaden their palates, the store offers samples with each purchase. The types of purchases and samples enjoyed by a customer are tracked to determine which other teas might fit that individual’s tastes in the future.

A key differentiator at American Tea Room is customer service – whether you’re actually royalty or a celebrity or not everyone is treated to exemplary on service. American Tea Room employees are highly trained to provide accurate information about all of their range of 500+ products and do not tout the myriad of medicinal benefits of tea – but rather encourage clients to find to teas that are personally appealing.

The store’s online business is very important, and it has a carefully designed website. Online sales represent 30 percent and rapidly increasing of total sales. Barenholtz says they learned early on to use Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to reach and engage customers, which has become vital to their business. They offer contests on Facebook, and send customers a birthday coupon with a discount good for that month.

Because busy customers may not have time to relax in the store, (and because parking can be challenging in Beverly Hills), The American Tea Room offers curbside service. You can email or call ahead an order, supply a credit card number, and then pull up curbside (there’s always room at the corner) for a salesperson to run out and drop off your order.

Tastefully appointed, customer-centric, with engaging social media and a sophisticated selection – it’s no wonder The America Tea Room has brewed up the right combination to serve the demands of its dedicated following of tea enthusiasts for the last eight years. It will no doubt create many new ones in the years to come.

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