Beverages: Brewing up sales

Published in FSD Update

Specialty tea programs add variety to operators’ beverage portfolios.

Looking to expand your beverage portfolio? Consider specialty teas—a “no-brainer, as it’s an easy and inexpensive way to provide something local,” says Justin Johnson, executive chef at the Watertown Regional Medical Center, in Wisconsin. Johnson teamed up with a local company called Four Elements to provide 100% USDA Organic Herbal Teas in flavors geared toward health, like “Joy, Love, Passion” and “Minus Sinus.”

“Our whole mission and brand is that food is medicine, so organic, health-focused teas are right in our wheelhouse,” says Johnson, who has received positive feedback from his inpatient population. “Tea is becoming the new coffee, so it’s definitely a trend that we wanted to get in front of.” 

Tatiana Grabowski, senior departmental trainer in the Food & Nutrition Department at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), in Portland, agrees. After Grabowski implemented a specialty tea program, tea sales tripled. “We continue to see a rise in tea sales—it’s an expanding market.” The key, she found, was a finding good partner. 

In 2008, OHSU partnered with Harney & Sons Teas to bring a full tea program, complete with silken sachets, tea bags and loose teas, to campus. “We wanted to improve and corner a part of our market, and teas bring in another consumer,” says Grabowski, who was looking for a comprehensive brand that used compostable tea bags and could provide a wide variety of options for her 15,000-plus customers. Harney & Sons, which she orders through Kobos, a local coffee vendor, fit the bill. “We couldn’t find a local tea vendor who could meet all of our needs, but sourcing through a local company cycles back through our local economy.” 

Variety is the spice of life

Today, OHSU offers a variety of herbal (caffeine-free), green, black, white and Oolong teas, and flavored black teas for morning tea drinkers. At most locations, the tea is offered in silken sachets to be brewed in compostable to-go cups. Some locations offer teapots, Matcha (whisk/bowl to finely mill the tea leaves) or Gai-wan (a Chinese lidded bowl for tea infusion and consumption). 

Another option are tea infusers, the approach used by Erika Chuburko, student manager of Tuffy’s Smoothie Bar at Ashland University, in Ohio. Loose leaves are placed in the tea infuser, which is placed in hot water to steep or brew the tea.

Chuburko also partnered with a local supplier, Crimson Cup, which provides loose-leaf teas in eight flavors, like Organic Mao Jian Green, Herbal Chai and Organic Earl Grey, which are served with tea infusers alongside recipes and brewing instructions so students can make their own flavors. “We know tea drinkers are on campus and we want to bring in new customers, as well as give our current customer base a caffeine alternative,” explains Chuburko, who also provides lemons and honey with the tea. Because of the steeping process, there’s more of an interactive customer experience, she says.

Marketing 

“Hot tea is a very different item for our operation, so marketing is extremely important,” adds Chuburko, who uses fliers, social media and closed-circuit TV advertising. Crimson Cup also provides marketing materials, an added benefit of the partnership.

Grabowski’s alliance with Harney & Sons provides similar benefits. The tea company has created special teas with the hospital’s logo for charitable events, donated products and prizes and sent a rep to talk about the teas. “They’ve helped us raise money for great causes by supporting our efforts in the community,” she says. “Working with a tea company to create sustainable products and reflecting on where you want to go will create a successful tea program.”