Un Amour Des Thes

MONTREAL, Quebec

Ten years as litigator for a top Canadian law firm meant 80-hour workweeks and little time with his kids for Stephane Lemay. So, he traded sparring with judges for friendly parrying over pu-erhs and oolongs when he turned to the tea industry for a second career and a lifestyle more appealing to his family-centered life.

Lemay, 44, has applied his lawyerly zeal to Un Amour des Thés (A Love of Tea), opening his first shop in 2002 in the French section of Outremont, Montreal. He expanded to the outskirts of the city with a second shop in Laval. The flagship store is an efficiently appointed 600-square-foot space in a high-end Francophone neighborhood where he sells his 250+ catalog of loose-leaf teas.

For his new role as tea aficionado, Lemay drew on his favorite professional period at SAQ (Sociétè des Alcools du Quebec), where for five years he served as a wine adviser for customers planning parties and events. “I like to eat and cook and knew I wanted to be involved in that world,” he says. “I also wanted to be an expert in something ? not a jack of all trades.”

Becoming an expert started with research. Lemay read and read some more. Books about tea, biographies about tea people, wine guides, food guides, and coffee and tea primers. Then Lemay became a living room tea merchant, requesting tea samples from around the world. With a room full of tea samples, he began tasting and refining his palate. “I began to connect the dots between theory and practice,” he shares.

familyUn Amour des Thés is a true family affair. Lemay’s parents Pierre and Lise not only encouraged their son’s 180°career change but joined the shop’s employee roster straight away. They have been charged with blending duties and both staff the shop on the weekends. His mom, Lise, has immersed herself in tea to the extent that Lemay thinks she has surpassed him in tea knowledge. She is one of the most oft-requested staff people and helps Lemay craft curriculum for their growing tea education program.

Tea Evolution

“When I started there was only one other specialty teashop [in Montreal] of any note. Now there are lots of tea shops,” he says. “Camellia [Sinensis] and my own shop were the pioneers.” Since then, he recalls, journalists have jumped on the bandwagon trumpeting the news of teas myriad health benefits, all kinds of companies have joined the market, and tea slowly got democratized.

Kusmitea CornerHis original 120-tea inventory has grown to 263 teas offered at retail and online. Lemay makes sure to provide tea for the entire spectrum of drinkers – from purists to regular tea drinkers. Montrealers love their Kusmi tea (a Parisian tea line), so Lemay makes it available, even dedicating a carefully curated and branded corner of his Laval location to the popular bagged and loose-leaf tea.

Online sales at Un Amour des Thés contribute less than 5% of overall sales. Average Internet orders can, however, jump as high as $50. “When customers order online, they order big,” he says. Average retail tickets at both shops pencil out to $15-$25. Most likely a reflection of the increased consumer knowledge of tea and their subsequently well-stocked teapot cupboards, his sales ratios have shifted from 60% tea and 40% teaware to 75% tea and 25% teaware.

For the first few years Un Amour des Thés experienced ‘huge’ growth with numbers climbing as high as 25% annually. It has now stabilized to flat, according to Lemay. He attributes that initial growth spurt to his Cinderella story. When he first set up shop, he had to overcome a reputation that preceded him as customers confused him with an eccentric tea merchant who had done business next door. Lemay set to work getting his story out to the press. He reached out to journalists to ask if a lawyer-turned-tea merchant story was newsworthy and it turns out, it was. Print exposure led to radio interviews and television appearances, which helped propel his business forward and gave him a fortuitous jumpstart.

The fairytale had a few dark notes when a third shop in a neighboring area closed in the winter of 2011 after several teashops jumped into the fray crowding Un Amour out. A misguided attempt to open a shop in another busy part of town [Mount Royal] closed quickly as well. Today Lemay has renewed his focus on his original two shops.

Refining the Model

tinsLemay is putting on the finishing touches on renovations for both shops as well as giving his logos an overhaul. The motivation to remodel both spaces stems from a need to refresh after nine years as well as be able to house all his tea tins in one wall and provide table seating. The store’s look has shifted from a French European flavor to a more rustic chic with wood harvested from old farm fences and complimentary flourishes such as a shiny black lacquered Chinese cabinet. He took his new logo and affixed it to square black tea tins – moving away from the ubiquitous silver tea canister.

He invokes the lessons of Who Moved My Cheese? a business parable of the late 1990s, where the mice that waited for the expected cheese died while the mice that went out in search of cheese survived and thrived. Lesson: You have to go where the cheese is instead of waiting for the cheese to come to you. For Lemay, the cheese is out with wholesale accounts — gourmet and specialty food shops that pepper the neighborhoods where both of his shops are located. Knowing that consumers shopping for specialty food items to stock their kitchen are his customers as well, positions Un Amour des Thés quite nicely to draw in their target customer. “Serious tea drinkers that go the extra distance will come to my shop,” he says.

Aside from the tea that is way above average, according to Lemay. “Our big distinction is our staff,” he adds. “We have a great, attentive staff of eight – with a regular-folk approach that’s neither snooty or snobby. We work to establish a relationship with our customers.”

The Tea Leaves Say

Unless a really good partnership opportunity comes up, Lemay will focus his prodigious energies on refining operations at his two stores and expanding his wholesale accounts.

Next on his agenda is a reboot of the website, including an English version of what is now only available en francaise. Lemay is also doing a rewrite of his website, updating all tea descriptions with an eye toward increasing his online business outside of Quebec. With this remodel, Un Amour de Thés can welcome more tea drinkers to classes, so he and his mother are working on expanding the curriculum, which covers the basics of tea, varietal primers and tea ceremonies.

Un Amour Des Thes Owner at the EntranceTravel is on the agenda as well for Lemay who wants to add more heft to his blog with authentic travel tales. Yunnan province in China is a place of interest for Lemay who is drawn to the majestic mountains, the quality of tea, and the friendly people – an intriguing mix of 35 different ethnic groups.

Lemay doesn’t regret leaving a lucrative law career behind to tend to tea. The former lawyer in him advises future tea merchants, “If you own a small retail business, don’t expect to be millionaire,” he says. “As long as it is interesting, and I am enjoying myself, I will keep doing it.”