Tea Retail Concepts: Something Old, Something New

Chris Kwok at Hey Hey Contemporary Tea House & Common Room, Los Angeles

Tea retailing is roiling like water in a boiling kettle.

The aging owners of quaint pastoral and small urban tearooms are not attracting youthful tea drinkers and many are retiring. The trendy urban chains of uptown shops and malls that drew droves of youthful enthusiasts are contracting.

The latest is Capital Teas, which announced last week that it is consolidating its Annapolis stores into the flagship store in historic downtown. As part of this initiative, the company has shuttered its store at the Westfield Annapolis Mall, according to chairman and CEO Peter Martino.

Inside the Flagship store (PRNewsfoto/Capital Teas)

Capital Teas opened in 2007 and operates 10 locations in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Florida, plus runs a very fast-growing website business at www.CapitalTeas.com and enjoys a prominent list of restaurant and hotel clients.

“Consolidating our Annapolis retail presence downtown makes economic sense while continuing to serve our loyal customer base at our flagship store. On the personal side, we mourn the closure of our Annapolis Mall store as we had invested heavily in a beautiful build-out, but the location had become unviable for us over the past year with our sales down 40-50% from previous years, with lower foot traffic. Conversely, downtown Annapolis remains vibrant throughout the year, and is particularly strong when the weather is nice, attracting both residents and tourists alike.”

The prior week, American Tea Room, a well-financed innovative Beverly Hills-based retailer, closed its online shop March 8. Last November, the company, founded in 2003, closed its Los Angeles and Orange County brick and mortar shops.

Retail springs eternal and as American Tea Room fades from memory, Hey Hey Contemporary Tea House & Common Room, an unconventional tea venue in Los Angeles, has opened its doors for business. The shop is near Echo Park at 1555 W. Sunset Blvd.

Owner Chris Kwok describes Hey Hey as “a non-alcoholic bar that has elements of Asian tea houses and specialty coffee shops.  Like a cocktail bar, Hey Hey’s menu is small but focused.  The drinks are balanced, made with the same flair and craftsmanship as cocktails, and are meant to be served as-is without additional adjustments.” Kwok left his job as a corporate consultant to launch Hey Hey.

Tea mojito

There is no line; guests fill out an order form to take to the bar where they watch their drink being made. Guests are encouraged to interact with the “crafter,” a talented and well-informed multi-beverage server making their drink. “We don’t use powders and we make everything in-house, so people can really taste the difference in the sauces, syrups, and red beans,” he says. Described as fresh, bold, and rich, the drinks are made with familiar Asian flavors, such as taro, pomelo, red bean, grass jelly, honey pearls, coconut milk, and almond pudding with a smattering of western ingredients such as Nutella and sea salt crème.

“Similar to third-wave coffee shops, Hey Hey is very intentional about the guest experience and relevance to the neighborhood, which encompasses the look and feel of the space and products,” explains Kwok.

The shop’s design is eastern inspired with a menu of popular fruit-infused teas and dessert beverages that are staples in Asian culture.  “We also provide a late-night option for people who want to go out but not drink,” said Kwok. Store hours are from 11a.m.-11p.m. and 11a.m.-12a.m. on the weekends.

“Our space is designed to encourage people to meet through our shared activities like our Wishing Light, World Map, and News Feed.  Our furniture is set low like campfire seating, and our couches are like those you might sit on in a friend’s cozy living room,” he said.

“Our target customers are young working professionals with a 9-to-5 job, local families, and freelance creatives.  We want these young professionals to use the space to be inspired. Hey Hey offers a place to expose their creative talent that might have been dormant through the corporate grind.  We want to give the public an opportunity to experience pockets of creativity that mainly occur in private places and homes. Families like Hey Hey because it’s a safe and fun place to congregate, relax, and play,” said Kwok.

Experiential retail

The shop is an example of “experiential” retail, an approach appealing to young people that welcomes all ages.

“We have only two drinks on the menu that use coffee as an ingredient,” he said.

“At a time where coffee retail dominates, our non-coffee menu is a big differentiator and welcomed alternative to the neighborhood.  Excluding wi-fi is a refreshing surprise to our guests. They love that there is a place where you can just say “hey” without it being awkward,” said Kwok.

Shared activities are an important aspect, he explains. “The types of events we’re incorporating are also a refreshing alternative to the typical “open mic nights” that are common to cafes over the past decade.  “We’ve created a space where there are few barriers for freelance creatives to share their talent and passions through a unique mix of events and shows. Hey Hey’s combination of elements from various cultures and experience creates a unique experience,” he explains.

“Most cafes operate like a restaurant; we serve light shareable snacks,” explains Kwok. Most tea houses de-prioritize the importance of their space and have a brand that identifies with only one demographic.  “In this era, public spaces have turned into public libraries and remote workplaces.  Hey Hey aims to inject the community with an alternative, bringing back some of the behaviors of early cafe/tea house culture where people were building and strengthening relationships, and if they were to work, they’re brainstorming or vision planning,” said Kwok.

Sources: Capital Teas, American Tea Room, Hey Hey

Enthusiastically described by Hey Hey owner Chris Kwok

  • Hey Hey (silk ice, caramel, honey pearl, mint jelly, flan) —> People love this because it’s like a liquid dessert that’s not too sweet and provides a significant amount of texture as the frapped milk mix with the tapioca and jelly. Plus there’s flan in it!
  • Breezy (sparkling water, simple syrup, lime, cucumber, mint, thyme) —> People love this because it’s a virgin mojito and a healthier option than regular soda.  This is probably the most refreshing drink you’ll ever have.
  • Passion (black tea, passion fruit, pomelo) —> People love this because no one is making properly shaken and stirred fruit-infused teas in this area.  Those unfamiliar with Asian tea houses are pleasantly surprised by the clean and refreshing taste that’s different than Teavana or American teas.  At the same time, those familiar with the product are pleasantly surprised by the balance between tea and moderate sweetness with the additional garnish and pulp.
  • Trifecta (red bean, mint jelly, taro, coconut milk) —> People love this because it’s a delicious vegan option.  Most people have not had a red bean for dessert and taro that’s not made from pre-packaged powder.  We are introducing it into people’s palettes for the first time, and they are really digging it.