Teaopia Under The Maple Leaf

CONCORD, Ontario

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was an island paradise, where generosity and reason ruled daily life; it was the author’s concept of the most perfect place on earth. David Bellisario’s Teaopia is a rapidly growing chain of tea cafés, where each day thousands of guests enjoy up to 100 varieties of premium loose leaf tea; it is the founder/president’s concept of the most perfect teahouse on earth … or at least in Canada.

Guided by this mission statement: “It All Begins with the Perfect Cup of Tea”, Bellisario has opened 40 stores since 2005 and has even more ambitious plans for the future.

“We will open five more locations this year, four in shopping centers and one a street-front café. We plan to open another 10 to 20 in 2012, using both mall and street-front sites,” the entrepreneur says. “Currently, all stores are corporate-owned. We are then planning international expansion in 2013, but haven’t yet decided how we will roll this out — whether we will take on master licenses for entire countries or specific states, or continue corporately.”

All of the Teaopia outlets feature a similar look. There is an “iconic tea wall,” where more than 100 teas are displayed, and a “unique tea bar,” where any of the teas may be brewed and drunk — hot or iced. An assortment of specialty wellness tonics, smoothies and lattés — all tea-based — also is available.

Where It All Started

The birthplace of this energetic enterprise was a dinner party where guests went “gaga” over the loose leaf tea Bellisario served. Curiosity aroused, the veteran retailer —he comes from a family that operated a chain of gift stores in major shopping centers across Canada — discovered there weren’t many accessible places to purchase high-quality, loose leaf tea in Maple Leaf country.
This inspired Bellisario to create Teaopia, to provide an “affordable, specialty luxury in a unique environment, one where customers can purchase premium loose leaf tea and savor a matcha tea latté or other personalized tea-based drinks.”

He says, “Retail is in my blood. I love it, and I love tea’s amazing ability to take on the character of the earth, and fragrance of the mountain air, where it’s grown. Whether it’s steamed and dried, or oxidized partially or fully, it’s always infused with the personality of the tea master.”

The first Teaopia opened in 2005 at the Erin Mills Town Centre in Mississauga, Ontario. Most of the stores are currently located in Ontario, with other outlets in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. All but three are in mall locations, the rest street-front cafés. That is not because Bellisario has a specific preference for malls, just that he is more used to them, harkening back to his days running the giftware chain.

Teaopia seems to have caught the tea trend at the right time, while public appreciation is building rapidly. On its website, www.tea.ca, the Tea Association of Canada cites Nielsen and NPD (formerly National Purchase Diary) figures showing that Canadians drink almost 9 billion cups of tea each year, including 380 million cups of hot tea consumed in restaurants. In addition, restaurants served 202 million servings of ready-to-drink (RTD) tea. The overall market is worth more than $388 million, and the dollar value of specialty tea, at $92.6 million, outpaces regular tea, at $88.8 million.

TeaopiaLooking forward, the government agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada expects tea consumption to “jump 40 percent by 2020, as growing consumer interest in health and wellness has led to increasing awareness of tea’s functional benefits.”

What’s Selling

Bellisario says, “Matcha is a very popular menu option. Our matcha is true matcha that comes from Japan.” He suggests that some retailers may be selling matcha that has been pre-blended with sugar, or a product that is nothing more than powdered green tea.”

At Teaopia, says the founder, direct-trade matcha comes in two grades — superior and pinnacle. Superior, offered in a 30-gram tin, is priced at $28 on the Website. A similarly sized package of pinnacle-quality matcha costs the consumer $38. Since 30 grams is just enough tea for about 15 8oz cups of tea, this means the consumer is paying at least $1.87 a cup for superior and $2.53 per cup for pinnacle, when it is consumed at home. In-store service and fancier drink choices naturally cost somewhat more.

Still, matcha is one of the favored purchases of Teaopia customers. Noting that this is about the same price one would pay for premium coffee, Bellisario adds, “At the shops, we hand-whisk every matcha drink. You can have it ceremonial style, in a smoothie, shaken over ice, or in a latté; our guests love it, and the vast majority do not add any sugar since the quality of the matcha is so good.”

Other loose leaf tea selections at Teaopia include hard-to-find varieties, such as white butterfly, produced in the Fujian province of China where “only the youngest leaves are gathered in the few days of early spring.”

Wellness blendsThe menu is filled with whites, greens, oolongs, blacks, matés, rooibos, and fruit blends. Bellisario is particularly proud of the line of “all-natural Wellness Blends, based on ancient Ayurvedic principles.” These focus on herbs to treat ailments and help restore balance to the “whole body.” The owner also notes that the company’s new Herbal Supplements are designed specifically to provide “a customized, benefit-boost to any favorite cup of tea.”

Health is very much on the mind of Teaopia’s founder. His Web site features some seven single-spaced pages discussing the potential benefits of tea with regard to cancer, weight loss, cardiovascular health, arthritis, bone health, bladder inflammation, dental concerns, kidney stones, the immune system, brain health, antioxidant status, and low mortality rates.

The website asserts that many of these connections have been recognized by Health Canada, which is the north-of-the-border equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Typical of the research cited by Teaopia are the following:

  • A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2005, in which researchers looked at 61,057 Swedish women between the ages of 40 and 76, and found that those who drank tea had a lower risk of ovarian cancer than those who did not drink tea
  • A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which researchers found that green tea extract can increase both metabolism and fat oxidation (fat burning) which leads to weight loss
  • A finding published in Circulation by Harvard researchers, noting that drinking tea improves the likelihood of survival after a heart attack; study participants who drank more than 14 cups of tea weekly had a 44 percent reduced death rate compared to non-tea drinkers, and those that consumed less than 14 cups of tea per week had a 28 percent reduced death rate.

The Café Scene

The newest star in the Teaopia firmament is its street-front cafés. As described by Nathalie Atkinson in her July 27 article for the National Post, the cafés are similar to the shops in that they the feature a tea wall, with its 100-plus varieties. Where they differ is in the availability of WiFi, and a more extensive menu. The board features 85 percent tea-based drinks and 15 percent espresso-based drinks (for diehard bean aficionados). The beverage list includes healthy, tea-infused specialty drinks, signature herbal supplements and probiotic, tea-based yogurt smoothies. Health-conscious, snack foods also are offered.

Tea sommaliers are on hand to brew each cup individually on a custom Bunn machine with variable temperature controls. Customers seeking to emulate the café experience at home can pick up a $299 one-touch Breville tea maker from the stores’ teaware department. According to Atkinson, the machine has heat settings similar to those on the Bunn and “does everything except serve you a cup on a tray garnished with a biscuit.”

Teaopia Tea WallIn the cafés, the journalist reports, the most popular beverage is the matcha latté, but it faces “stiff competition from the store’s signature smoothies and iced teas,” especially on summer’s hottest days. For that matter, says Atkinson, “Connoisseurs can enjoy any one of the flavors flash-iced to perfection.”

During her visit to Toronto’s Queen Street West location, she was intrigued by Teaopia’s imaginative blends, including: Strawberry Fields, an aromatic white tea with melon, strawberry and apple; Ice Age, a blend of lemon peel, mint, safflower and orange blossoms that yields a peachy-lime flavor; and Summer Breeze, a green rooibos tea flavored with bits of carrot, pear, dates, mallow flowers and lemongrass.

Bellisario says, “As rooibos gets older, it will ferment.” This darkens the color and deepens the flavor. Green rooibos is zestier and more refreshing.

When Bellisario talks about tea and his tea business, he is enthusiasm personified. “Today, tea doesn’t have to imply old and stuffy,” he declaims. “It’s not just a drink for grannies anymore. It’s fresh, young and vibrant. The key is in the preparation and showing people how good — and good for you — tea is.”

Contributing editor Alan Richman, former editor/associate publisher of Whole Foods Magazine, is now a full-time New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in coverage of foods and beverages. He can be contacted at arkr@optonline.net.