When she was a young girl, Shabnam Weber recalls, “There was always a samovar in the kitchen holding tea ready for at least 10 guests.” Her family came from Persia, she explains, and in that culture, tea is more than a drink — it is a symbol of hospitality.
Her business partner Frank Weber has a German background, but he is no less imbued with the value of tea as a liquid that lubricates social interaction. In Germany, tea consumption is — perhaps surprisingly — quite high. At age 14, Frank had already accumulated a private stash of almost 15 different teas. Later, he let this love of tea blossom into a love of all sorts of foods, and he put his passion to work by becoming a chef.
Shabnam and Frank launched The Tea Emporium in 2000. He already had earned his chef certification and attended Hotel Management College. He also had worked in Switzerland, England, Bermuda and Canada, where, in addition to cooking, he had managed more than 10 restaurants. Meanwhile, she had graduated from the University of Toronto with a major in political science and followed with postgraduate work that led to a diploma in psychology.
From the beginning, the two business partners had a very clear vision of what the Toronto-based The Tea Emporium was to become. “A commitment to excellence was key,” says Shabnam. “The product had to be of the highest quality, always fresh and sold with expert advice. It needed to be fun and easy for the customer to shop. Education is a large part of what The Tea Emporium still provides to every customer every day. The Tea Emporium was to be serious about the way it stored and handled the product, and the vision was to be true in the approach.”
Over the past decade, says Shabnam, “The Tea Emporium has grown to be a leader in the tea industry in Toronto. It supplies many top restaurants as well as conducts weekly seminars and tastings. We were involved in spearheading the Tea Sommelier program in Canada.” She herself is involved in writing a revision of the current program as well as teaching in the Tea Sommelier program.
During the past 11 years, the business partners have opened eight stores, relocated two, and currently operates four stores in the metropolitan Toronto area. And, adds Shabnam, “We have plans to expand. The newest location is co-locating in the just completed Loblaw grocery store in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Tea Emporium will operate as a stand-alone tea shop inside the Loblaw store when it opens Nov. 23.
“This is a new concept for the giant supermarket chain and a great experience for us,” says Shabnam.
Currently, the chain has two free-standing outlets and two shops in enclosed malls. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The malls bring higher traffic but more confining rules are generally encountered in malls. There is another distinction for stand-alone locations. There is more connection to a neighborhood, a community, she says. “The business takes on a more personal dimension.”
|Prescriptions for Business
— and Life
On its website, The Tea Emporium’s co-owners Frank and Shabnam Weber list the following nuggets of advice under the heading “Mantra.” This is the closest the business partners come to expressing a mission statement.
While, at first, this list would appear to have little to do with business, in fact it has everything to do with business. If every business reflected these values, the world would be a better place.
♦ There is NO reality — only our perceptions of reality.
Shabnam adds, “We are involved in our communities and support things like silent auctions, etc. We also do tea seminars that provide a great way for our customers to get to know us and our product in a fun and interactive way.”
Store size varies widely for The Tea Emporium. The smallest is a mere 600 sq. ft., the largest a generous 2,300 sq. ft. (this is the flagship store and also houses the head office).
Foodservice is not part of the mix, making the smaller store areas adequate. “Tea-to-go” is available at some — not all — locations, but it remains a very small part of the operation, contributing 5 percent to sales “but an important component allowing customers to have a cup of well-made tea,” says Shabnam.
Staffing includes both full-time and part-time employees. And the philosophy, says Shabnam, “is rather simple — everyone is responsible for what we consider the basic duties: customer service first and foremost, receiving inventory, store cleanliness, and so on.”
A handful of workers also carry some additional administrative responsibilities — maintaining inventory at the head office, supervising store standards, and dealing with the wholesale customers.
Daily transactions and traffic vary by location and time of year, but on average the stores sell to 35 customers a day. Transactions average $28, according to Shabnam.
Awards won by the company include Retailer of Distinction from the Canadian Gift and Tableware Association, as well as Retailer of the Year from First Canadian Place.
While possibly more visible on the retail level, The Tea Emporium also has a thriving wholesale business. Shabnam says, “Our wholesale client list currently runs about 150 strong. Our strength in this area relies on our reputation as well as our quality and service.”
The United States Will Have to Wait
For the time being, The Tea Emporium expects to concentrate its efforts in Canada. As Shabnam says, “We currently do not have any plans to expand into other countries — but the beauty of entrepreneurship is that you are flexible and open to whatever opportunities may present themselves.”
For now, however, she asserts, “The Tea Emporium Inc. provides a lifestyle of tea to Toronto.”
Commercial success aside, The Tea Emporium has another high-ranking goal — to provide consumers with an education in tea. “By teaching our customers about our product, we not only expand their knowledge so that they purchase with more confidence, but they speak proudly about our product with their friends,” Shabnam explains.
Addressing the future, Shabnam says, “The Tea Emporium was the first in Canada to take the approach to tea that you are now seeing among other retailers — self-branding, for example. Our commitment to serving our customers an excellent product and sharing our passion for tea will never change.”
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 [email protected].