QualiTea, SustainabiliTea and CommuniTea receive more than lip service at Argo Tea. These, along with ChariTea, DiversiTea, LoyalTea and CreativiTea, are trademarked cornerstones on which the Chicago-based company has built a thriving business in less than nine years.
Founded in 2003 and currently operating 20 locations, with many more being planned, the firm has changed the way thousands of consumers respond to tea.
Unlike many companies, Argo Tea doesn’t promote a mission statement. Instead, its website (www.argotea.com) details its “passion” — to bring teas directly from growers around the world and blend them into unique and delicious signature beverages and teas.
The company declares, “We are committed to being a sustainable business by working with the best local and global tea, coffee, and food artisans and by contributing back to our communities to promote a healthy lifestyle and the conservation of natural resources. We are dedicated to delivering consistent quality and a genuine customer experience ‘one customer and one cup at a time’ and to providing the ‘Argo experience’ through our innovative approach of rediscovering the diversity and tradition of teas. We promote diversity by empowering our employees and leveraging our customers’ feedback, which together results in the best products, people, and business.”
If you take from this that Argo downplays pecuniary goals in the pursuit of social consciousness, you would be wrong. Quoted in a 2010 ChicagoBusiness.com interview, co-founder and president Arsen Avakian said, “I want to build the Apple of tea, and really create a premier global brand.”
An immigrant from Armenia who is now in his mid-thirties, Avakian added, “When I started Argo, I had the vision of being the Starbucks of tea, but in the last few years I realized that is no longer our inspiration. Starbucks is more like PC—it’s old, less healthy and designed for everyone—and we want to be more like Mac: young, healthy, cool and a more unique, innovative brand.
“I want to build the Apple of tea, and really create a premier global brand, he continued. Together with co-founders Daniel Lindwasser and Simon Simonian, he appears to be well on his way.
The company’s 14 Chicagoland outlets, the five in New York City and one in St. Louis are all sited in carefully selected high-traffic locations like O’Hare Airport, the University of Chicago Medical Center, and the Merchandise Mart.
In New York, stores can be found at Columbus Circle, the NYU Langone Medical Center, and busy Union Square. All are surrounded by populations of likely tea drinkers.
Meanwhile, foodservice is not the only approach Argo is taking. It also sells bottled specialty teas, which debuted in Chicago-area Whole Foods and Treasure Island stores and have subsequently been offered to other supermarket chains. Lipton, Snapple and Arizona are just three of the high-powered brands Argo will be battling for a share of the overall $7.3 billion U.S. tea market, which is estimated at less than one-fifth of the $40 billion in sales racked up by coffee each year.
Nonetheless, tea — and particularly cold tea — is considered a hot sector among beverages, continuing to grow throughout the recession.
Of course, as a purveyor of exotic blends, Argo won’t be going head-to-head with Lipton, Tetley and Salada. Its customers favor upscale drink options such as white tea with açai berry and lemonade, or red tea with pomegranate juice.
The chain also heavily promotes its Teapuccino, a blend of black, red or Earl Grey tea mixed with steamed milk and froth. Other specialties include green tea ginger twists, yerba maté lattes, and other proprietary blends. In all, there are more than 30 hot and chilled menu options. And purists can also order a cup of unsweetened loose-leaf tea in traditional flavors.
A New Look
According to QSR, a national trade journal, the sleek Argo cafés don’t look much like the stereotypical teahouses of past centuries. Modern and inviting, they are decorated in shades of green and dark wood. Ranging in size from 1,000 to 2,000 square feet, with dining areas that can seat 40 to 100 people, most of the shops also have outdoor seating. Wireless Internet service is offered free. Argo also operates two manned kiosks, which take up 150 to 200 square feet. “We never were and never will be a traditional teahouse,” says Avakian.
As early as 2007, when Argo tea was just four years old, Avakian and his cohorts were able to articulate its special position in beverage marketing. “What sets us apart is our focus [on tea],” the co-owner told Nation’s Restaurant News.
Indeed, Kari Ginal, director of marketing, said, “Tea is still, for Americans, an unexplored area, though it’s the second most-consumed beverage worldwide, after water.” Thus, the company’s commitment to sampling. Ginal said, “We have people out on the streets and we always sample at the counter as well. More than expensive advertising campaigns, we believe in guerilla marketing and in word-of-mouth.”
Ginal added, “Our customers are mostly women who are health-conscious and eco-friendly.” Accordingly, Argo tries to keep its products natural, including the use of cane sugar to sweeten drinks. “We would never use artificial sweeteners,” said the marketing director.
Speed of service is another attribute prized by customers. Avakian said the company brews teas ahead of time—in the form of concentrates. Then, when a patron places an order — hot or cold —store personnel simply add water or milk.
Using concentrates prepared at a central location also enables Argo to keep products consistent in quality and flavor. Avakian suggested that this helps the company expand while maintaining the same standards throughout the chain.
Guardians of the Earth
Because it is committed to “making a difference both locally and globally,” Argo participates in trademarked programs that it calls CommunitTea and SustainabiliTea. Under the CommuniTea banner, it strongly supports organizations championing and supporting women, wellness, the environment and the arts.
Among these are: the Sheffield Neighborhood Association; the Chicago Loop Alliance; the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association; Local First Chicago; the Streeterville Chamber of Commerce; the Evanston Art Center; the Mayor’s Office of Special Events; and more.
With regard to SustainabiliTea, the Argo website proclaims, “We are committed to being an environmentally responsible, sustainable business. We strive to spread the arc of sustainable consciousness by supporting other organizations working towards the same goal.” Elements of the SustainabiliTea program include the following:
- Reliance on 100 percent Fair Trade, organic and certified coffee beans (Argo also sells coffee, though its focus is tea)
- VolunTearing, which encourages all TeaMembers (Argo staffers) to join with and assist CommuniTeas in which they live and work
- Wind-powered energy – Electricity used at all Argo Tea Cafés, as well as the Argo Brewery, is offset by Green-e certified renewable energy credits purchased from wind farms. In 2009, this effort was the equivalent of planting 5,745 mature trees to counter carbon dioxide pollution, or not driving 1,424,527 miles
- Reduce, Recycle, We Brew – Discounts are offered for the use of ceramic mugs for in-café service or the use of the customer’s own personal travel tumbler for tea on the go. Customers also are asked to use recycling receptacles at all of the locations
- Café equipment and appliances are Energy Star rated. CFL lighting is featured. Millwork is fabricated with sustainable materials and practices, including recycled materials. Flooring contains 40 percent post-industrial waste, and adhesives and sealants are water-based and low in emissions
Other “…iTea” Programs
Argo’s world vision doesn’t end with CommuniTea and SustainabiliTea. In fact, the company currently promotes five other “iTea” efforts:
- ChariTea – Argo actually serves a drink called ChariTea, which it describes as “a delicious combination of hibiscus petals, sweet cherry juice and vanilla that lends a helping hand every day.” More importantly, the name denotes a program in which the company selects a new charity each month to which it donates 10 percent of net proceeds from ChariTea beverage sales. In February of this year, for example, coordinating with National Heart Health Month, Argo gave its largesse to Hearts a Bluhm in Chicago and Harboring Hearts Housing in New York. Other past recipients include: the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation; Friends of the Parks; Comer Children’s Hospital; The Greater Chicago Food Depository; Lincoln Park Zoo; the Step Up Women’s Network; The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; the American Cancer Society; and many more.
- DiversiTea – Believing that positive energy is generated by “myriad thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions,” Argo attempts to listen to what its TeaMembers, customers and CommuniTeas are saying. Argo recognizes the surface differences of its staffers in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, gender, physical ability and other human factors, while celebrating their “collective aspiration to continuously improve the company.” Similarly, Argo says, “The life experiences of each of our customers lend valuable insight and new perspective we may not necessarily think of ourselves. We take each customer’s contribution very seriously, whether it is through e-mail, online surveys, or through our TeaMembers, integrating the advice into ways in which we can keep improving our business.”
- CreativiTea – Working not only with its own creative people, but with others in its market areas, Argo provides a channel for artists to reach out to new audiences. The results can be seen on the company’s seasonal drink posters, in its original cup designs, and on TeaShirts (there is a design contest each season of the year, with the winners being chosen by popular vote).
- LoyalTea – Embodied in a three-in-one piece of plastic that functions as a reward card, debit card and gift card, Argo’s LoyalTea Club enables patrons to earn points that pay off in discounts, pays a bonus of $5 for every $50 loaded on the card when it is used to pay for purchases, and becomes a thoughtful gift when used as a way to introduce friends, family and co-workers to the world of tea.
- Impressive as it is, none of the above structure, activity and success would be possible if it were not built on a foundation of quality, or as Argo likes to say, QualiTea.
To ensure a consistent level of excellence, the company relies on “conscientious sourcing.” The Web site explains, “We hand pick our tea growers from around the world. Our organic, Fair Trade and shade-grown coffee helps support a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development and environmental stewardship. We partner with premier food artisans to supply our cafés with delicious pastries and natural foods so that we may offer unique and healthy choices. We work locally and globally with the best companies that share our values and commitment to QualiTea products.”
This philosophy is manifested in a menu that features such signature drinks as White Tea Açai Squeeze, Pom Tea, ChariTea, Carolina Honey, Green Tea Ginger Twist, and Mojitea.
Food fare at the cafés includes a SpecialTeas line of Tea Bites, Teanie Panini and Teapot Grains, all free of trans fats, preservatives and artificial flavors or colors, and made fresh in each store every day. Many dishes feature unique tea-infused ingredients, like Earl Grey tea-poached chicken breast or green tea-poached wild Alaskan salmon baked in a croissant swirl. For dessert, brownies, scones, muffins and cookies emerge from on-site convection microwave ovens to entice the olfactory sense as well as the taste buds.
The fact that Argo has been growing — quite well, thank you — through the current blighted economy is proof that consumers are buying into the concept. In the United States, it would seem, tea is new and therefore exciting, while remaining a drink that is slow-paced and relaxing. Most of all, says Avakian, “It’s an affordable luxury.”
World Tea News contributing editor Alan Richman, is the former editor/associate publisher of Whole Foods Magazine. Now a full-time New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in coverage of foods and beverages, he can be contacted at [email protected].