Sep 16th 2011 Issue
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The end of the Victorian Tea Room

Charles Cain - Sep 16th 2011

Traditional afternoon tea

Samovar Tea Lounge

Samovar Tea Lounge

Victorian Tea Rooms are on the decline and are being replaced by urban, trendy cafes, cupping rooms and tea themed restaurants. I made a statement something like this last week during my presentation at World Tea East in Philadelphia. The topic of my talk was finding profitability in the tea business. Good headlines and good soundbites catch your attention. Clearly this one worked, because I've heard from quite a few people worried that I was predicting the demise of their personal businesses.

The simple truth is that many Victorian Tea Rooms serving high tea and finger sandwiches are struggling to survive, while most of the successful new entrants are taking a hip, urban approach to tea. It's also true that averages don't always apply at the local level. There are plenty of very successful Victorian Tea Rooms, particularly across the more traditional New England corridor. But even that generalization isn't absolute. One of the best and most successful examples I've seen is the Queen Mary tea room in Seattle, Washington.

Most new tearooms today (though we probably need a new term) are more along the lines of Samovar Tea Lounge in San Francisco, or my friends at the Urban Tea Loft, down in Chandler, Arizona. The appeal of these is a little broader and younger.

The larger point of my statement was simply to say that if you're looking to open a tea cafe, tea room, tea bistro or any other tea and foodservice establishment, chances are your best bet is to make a splash by avoiding the traditional "tea room" and capturing the consumer's imagination with a new image of what tea can be.

One of the reasons I believe this is a long term shift and not just a "flavor of the moment" trend, is that the demographics of tea drinkers are shifting. Two thirds of Adagio's online customers over the age of 40 are women. No big surprise, right? But you might be surprised to know that a slight majority of Adagio's online customers under the age of 30 are men!

While there will always be a place for well run Victorian Tea Rooms, tea is no longer the exclusive choice only of the Red Hat Society and those with the flu. Tea is young, hip, and healthy. Tea is cool. We can all be grateful for that because a growing industry leaves room for many, many business models.

Adagio Teas