A Tea Refuge Amid the Bustle of Vancouver

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

When Mark Mercier opened the Granville Island Tea Company with his wife Deb in 1999, all he wanted to do was get out of a suit and tie. Previously a sales manager for Air Canada, he wanted a lifestyle change – something where he could have fun and not take himself too seriously. Deb, a lifelong tea lover, suggested a tea business and when space became available in Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market – an artsy space where gourmet food and beverage shops rub shoulders with artists – the couple jumped at the opportunity.

“We just wanted to do something we enjoyed, and here, having fun is part of the job,” he says as he pours a cup of Kenya Kambaa tea and sits down for a chat. The 400-square-foot, L-shaped tea shop has seating for just five, but the ambience from counter staff is warm and friendly. With up to 200 varieties of tea available at any one time, there’s plenty to talk about.

The store sells tea exclusively — no food whatsoever. Its main business is from customers who buy loose leaf tea in quantities of 200-to-300 grams every couple of weeks, though many come in for a $1.95 cup of tea, particularly masala chai, the store’s number one seller. Loose leaf teas range in price from $5.95 for Genmaicha, a Japanese tea blended with toasted rice, up to $55 per 100g of organic orchid oolong. But the store’s most popular tea by far is Cream Earl Grey. “We have really competitive pricing, and coupled with the fact that we move so much tea, we find ourselves opening a new 35-pound case of Cream Earl Grey every week,” Mark says.

The Merciers are able to keep pricing competitive by keeping their margins significantly lower than their competitors. “We know this because we share certain brokers,” says Mark. “We take advantage of our volume to make up for the lower margin.” The store sells loose leaf tea exclusively, 60 percent of which is black, green and oolong and the remainder, herbal. Because space is such a tight commodity in the store, the couple sells little teaware, its offerings in the mid- to upper-mid-grade in quality.

One place there’s no compromise, though, is in the quality of the tea they stock.

image“We don’t offer low grade tea,” says Mark, who prides himself on stocking an extensive range of regular teas. “Our approach is to market to the 90 percent of regular tea drinkers who want good quality, good value tea and a great selection, rather than to the exclusive, elite tea drinker. We’ve taken a value position on tea and that’s been a big part of our success.”

Among the tea varieties on the menu are organics like Tanzania, wild blueberry, Fujian sencha and spearmint. There are 20 different rooibos teas, including amaretto, lemon myrtle, marzipan almond and Tuscan pear. Assorted herbals include cranberry apple, angel mist and peach apricot honeybush, while flavoured green tea varieties encompass mango, cherry rose sencha, vanilla green and weeping rose.

During the past 12 years the couple has seen other tea stores in Greater Vancouver come and go, but sales at Granville Island Tea Company have been strong. In December 2011 sales were up 20 percent from the previous year in month-over-month gross sales. In that same month, they earned as much in one month as they did in the entire year they first opened.

Mark is the first to confess that the store’s location is its biggest advantage. “Because this is such a high traffic area in the public market, we’ve been fortunate,” he reflects. “There isn’t a great market in Vancouver for tea, but we happen to be in a great location, so a small tea shop like ours can survive here.”

When the shop first opened each tin of tea displayed a grade, along with its price tag. The couple quickly learned the grade system was not working “They were buying based on price and the grade because they thought they were buying what they wanted. Really, though, what they wanted bore no relationship with the grade or price.” For example, they would show a customer a BOP (broken orange pekoe) and the customer would balk, saying it was the sweepings off the floor. But if they could get customers to taste the tea instead of prejudging and they liked it, then they had a happy customer, so they focused on tasting instead of selling by grade alone. The customers soon realized they were more concerned with them being happy about their purchase than simply selling them anything.

Education and tasting was important for customers who knew some tea but not all tea “We’d show people an oolong, for example, and they’d say ‘no, that’s not an oolong!’” he recalls. As they might not have been familiar with different oolongs.

These days tasting times and the number of tastings possible are limited when the store is busy. But customers are frequently sent home with a sample of tea to try. “Only they know which one is the right tea – the challenge is in finding the right tea for the right person,” says Mark. “Our fear is they will buy one tea, go home and try it and if they don’t like it, measure us by that one tea. We want to make it known that there are options out there.”

Education is a large component of the business and the Merciers and their team members spend a great deal of time trying to communicate to customers what a cut of leaf is, the difference it makes and the regional differences in teas. “Tea is very subjective for people, so when customers don’t know what they want we have to try and empower them with education,” he explains. “By educating our customers, we’ve helped to develop their palates to new oolongs and specific harvest teas, like first flush Darjeeling teas.”

Between educating and socializing with customers, it can take a while to get a cup of tea at the Granville Island Tea Company. “If you’re in a hurry, this isn’t your kind of place,” Mark says unequivocally. “But people come here because they like that.”

One customer, a 94-year-old lady, would commute to the shop by bus from North Vancouver, a neighboring city. “She would make the trip on her own, and it wasn’t just the tea she came for,” says Mark. “It was because we knew her, and she knew she’d get special attention. Over the years we’ve cultivated a certain clientele and our customers have become part of our family community.”

It’s what makes coming to work such a joy, he says. “Deb and I are very chatty, friendly, social people and other people who are like that gravitate towards it. I know my customers, I know the tea they like and we’ve built a community in our tea shop. On weekends, it’s the same people here all the time, and they know their friends will be here too.”

Speaking as a businessman, Mark says the Granville Island Tea Company has far exceeded his expectations in its profitability. “We honestly didn’t start this tea shop to make money, because we were making money before, in other businesses,” he confesses. “We wanted to have fun.”

True to their goal, the couple is having a blast. They work a few half days each week and leave store operations to their 13 regular staff the rest of the time. In the summer they take off in the new sailboat they moor not far from their store, sailing around the Gulf Islands. “We walk to work in three minutes and we have an unbelievable lifestyle,” says Mark. “The store is only 400 square feet, but for a lot of people it’s a refuge.”