Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The 'Starbucks of Tea': A Surprising Turn


Photo: Corax

When Argo Tea opened its first locations in Chicago, its founders were quoted as wanting Argo to become the 'Starbucks of Tea.' Quite apart from the questionable decision to refer to their tea houses as 'tea cafes,' to couch one's aspiration in terms of Starbucks puts the discourse once again in terms of coffee. The logic behind such an urge is completely obvious, but it is not the less undesirable for all that.

Be that as it may, since its inception in 2003 Argo Tea has had quite a bit of commercial success, with already ten locations in Chicago and three more in New York. The casual onlooker might easily infer that these Argonauts are well on their way toward garnering that Golden Fleece of tea commerce: their stated goal of becoming the 'Starbucks of Tea.'

But you really never do know what's next. At this particular moment, the coveted 'Starbucks of Tea' label seems likeliest to be awarded to another, rather surprising contender: Starbucks.

Photo: CFP

Just a week ago, Starbucks launched its new line of tea products -- in China. If this strikes you as a bad case of coals to Newcastle, you are hardly alone. Here we have Yanks importing Yankee capitalism to Communist China -- using Chinese-grown goods as merchandise. Apart from the baroque intricacies of those economic implications, -- will Chinese consumers trust laowai to be able to purvey, without getting it seriously wrong, a commodity so foundational to the daily life of China?

This is by no means Starbucks's first beach-head in the People's Republic. There are several hundred Starbucks shops there already (over 350 by the beginning of 2009). Indeed, until 2007 there was a Starbucks just outside the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing; when controversy arose over this placement, the store was closed.

Photo: Ng Han Guan [AP]

But new locations will be all the more carefully chosen. And the teas on offer in Chinese Starbucks will not be the Tazo tea bags so familiar in the US: on the contrary, the first tea selections in China are three carefully-chosen Chinese teas -- a white, a green, and an oolong: bai mu dan, bi luo chun, and dongfang mei ren.

If anyone can successfully engineer such an audacious undertaking, it is likely to be Starbucks. But -- even with top administrators who are themselves Chinese -- can even Starbucks overcome presuppositions about Westerners and tea culture? An arguably more problematic issue: what long-term impacts might such a juggernaut have on tea culture and the tea industry in China?