By Scott Fagerstrom
Tuxedo-clad men and women in glamorous finery lined up to pose with Canadian supermodel Coco Rocha. Waiters elbowed their way through the thick crowds, careful not to spill the tea cocktails—specially created for this occasion—balanced atop elegant silver trays. On the street outside, people not lucky enough to win an invitation gazed in at the glittering mob of media celebrities and business titans.
When it comes to opulence, Hollywood has nothing on TWG Tea, the Singapore-based retailer that pulled out all the stops last week to celebrate its first North American Tea Salon & Boutique in Vancouver, Canada.
The grand opening, worthy of an Academy Awards after-party, was symbolic of the company’s goal – the elevation of tea into a luxury item, in the same category as, say, caviar or brandy. And it’s already come some way toward that goal, with its in-house brands now served to first class customers on Singapore Airlines and Nippon Airways, and available to American customers exclusively through luxury catalog Dean & Deluca.
But it is the stores themselves – décor reflecting the world’s famous tea cultures and ornate shelves lined with 800 teas categorized by origin – that are the company’s main focus.
“Everybody thinks they know tea,” said Taha Bouqdib, who co-founded the company in 2008. “If you asked anyone in the world, nobody says ‘I don’t know tea.’ But I’ve been in this business for 23 years, and I’m still learning … the dream is when people come in, by the time they go out, they have new information every day they come here.”
To that end, the store’s salespeople – “connoisseurs” in TWG parlance – spend weeks at the company’s Singapore headquarters, learning about the history and cultivation of tea, optimal brewing times and techniques, and the various cultures that have grown up around the beverage.
Loose teas at TWG range from $9.50 for 50 grams of English Breakfast Tea to $23,000 a kilo for the most precious Gold Yin Zhen white tea from Fujian, China.
The breakfast set menu starts at $24; that gets the customer a hot or iced TWG tea, freshly squeezed orange or apple juice and a choice of one plain or chocolate croissant, or two scones or muffins served with TWG Tea jelly and whipped cream. Adding an egg and a choice of three TWG Tea macarons makes for the “signature” breakfast, at $45 (all prices Canadian).
“Our average time spent with a customer is 20 minutes,” said Louise Benzrihem, TWG’s assistant public relations director. “When you come into the store, and you say ‘I had this tea in Thailand once,’ we can ask a few questions, then say, ‘That must have been oolong.’ “
That philosophy has served the company well; since opening its first location in Singapore to a great deal of skepticism (“selling tea to Asians is going to be like selling ice to Eskimos,” Bouqdib recalls being told), the company has spread across Asia and the Middle East. In Europe, its teas are so far available only at Harrods in London and to patrons of the Ritz in Paris—though Bouqdib says Britain is his next major target.
Vancouver, long known as Canada’s “gateway to Asia,” was a natural entry point for the company’s plan to expand in North America, Bouqdib said.
“It’s a multicultural place … there are so many different nationalities living together, and living together well … there’s an understanding of tea here in Vancouver, you have a lot of Chinese living here, people from Hong Kong, Taiwan; all of this will help us to make sure the message is getting out” about TWG’s brand and its commitment to high-quality tea.
Visiting Vancouver may be the only way for North Americans to experience a TWG store for some time; Bouqdib said the store wants to first establish itself in the Vancouver market – perhaps even opening an additional outlet or two there – before expanding elsewhere in Canada or crossing south of the border.
“The most important thing for us is to grow with stability,” Bouqdib said. Recalling the old saying that “You do not get two chances to make a first impression,’ he said, “When I go to the U.S., I will do it in the right way.”
Scott Fagerstrom is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Wash.
Source: TWG Tea