14,675. That’s a figure etched in Sarah Chanter’s mind. With no formal training, she baked this number of scones when she spent two weeks in Japan promoting loose-leaf tea from Scotland. If anything, it shows entrepreneurs are great at rolling their sleeves up.
Sitting in the turquoise teashop in Edinburgh’s Frederick Street, Sarah recalls one of the highlights of her whirlwind life as director of eteaket, the specialist loose leaf tea business. “I had made eight scones before I went to Japan. When I left I had made 14,675 scones for the high teas. It’s probably my proudest moment. You know, you have to learn to do things somehow. I didn’t know how to export butter to Japan, I know now.”
With Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink ahead, it is interesting to see how a Scottish firm is capitalising on a distinct export market, with an approach that fuses a love for tea in all its glorious aromas and scents, with a digital outlook based around online selling and a sharp eye for design. Indeed, eteaket is a template for other start-ups and one that many might wish to emulate.
Is this something Sarah ever thought about when she started studying product design at Edinburgh College of Art? “No,” she laughs. “Tea is an amazing industry to be in. The whole hot beverage market is a unique one, whether it is tea, herbal teas, hot chocolates or coffees. The growth is exciting as well.”
Tea is a global phenomenon and an ingrained part of our British culture, but in the UK it has been the domain of the major companies, such as Tetley, part of Tata Global Beverages; Brooke Bond, once the UK market leader and owned by Unilever; Yorkshire Tea, from Taylor’s of Harrogate; and Twinings, the family-run business who invented Earl Grey tea. Scotland was renowned for Melrose’s tea, shipped into Leith for nearly 200 years, now part of the Typhoo tea brand, whose parent is the Apeejay conglomerate, based in Kolkata.
“I’ve always loved tea; which is a prerequisite for working in this business,” she says.
Sarah, originally from Brighton, came to Scotland to study visual communication and graphic design at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2006. She moved south and became a graphic designer with Lisa Tse, Ltd, founder of the women-only Sorority Club in London. Then she headed back to Edinburgh to work with One O’Clock Gun design consultants, doing work for the NHS, various local businesses and estate agents such as Rettie and Stuart & Stuart.
She also worked on websites and with The Skinny, the central belt’s ‘cool and hip’ arts and culture newspaper.
“In 2008, when everything fell apart and the property market seized up, I was made redundant from One O’Clock Gun because there wasn’t enough work. I landed a job working here through my love of tea and over time built up my strong relationship with Erica. Then I was asked to do more.”
When Sarah joined Erica Moore, the tearoom in Edinburgh was going well. But the online and wholesale side was still ‘in development’. This was where exporting expansion could help grow the eteaket loose tea brand.
“The tearoom was here and it was as busy then as it is now, which is lovely. I’ve been able to help Erica expand,” explains Sarah, who was made a director in August 2014.
Erica Moore’s own tale is well-known in entrepreneurial circles – indeed she was finalist in this year’s WeDO Scotland Entrepreneur of the Year awards. Originally from Gourock, she became a litigation lawyer with Kendall Freeman in London and, in December 2008, she quit her job, took a leap of faith, and went travelling to learn about tea. She married fellow lawyer Stewart Moore, who now works for McClure’s in Edinburgh. On winning the Beverage Standards Award in 2012, Erica said: “It was my all-consuming passion for tea and my desire to make leaf tea exciting and accessible to the public that made me get into the café business. I had no experience whatsoever in running a café or business so it has been a rather steep, but enjoyable learning curve.”
Erica, who wasn’t available for this interview as she was taking maternity leave with Faith, her second child, credits Sarah with revamping the lay-out and moving it from a self-service Starbuck-type retail outlet to table service making the cuppa something more special.
“I manage the three business streams. We have a teashop manager, and then I oversee the management of the café. I also run the wholesale and the online as well,” says Sarah.
It was 2011 when Sarah embarked on that eventful first trip to Japan to source teas – and bake scones. She set up a pop-up tea-room in the Hankyu Department Store, Kakuda-cho, Kita-ku in Osaka for a fortnight.
“It was brilliant and insane. The Japanese would queue up for four hours to come and have tea with us. It was the Harrods of Japan on 13 floors, with six or seven storeys of luxury products. At 10am, when the store opened, people were running up the escalators and there was a surge of people to get into our pop-up tearoom on the ninth floor. It was unbelievable.”
Taking tea from Scotland to Japan, where there is an almost spiritual reverence about the tea ceremony, smacks of hauling coals to Newcastle.
“One of the special aspects of tea is that there are ceremonies wherever you go in the world. It is like a communicative tool to bond people. Tea and conversation go hand in hand. So taking the British afternoon tea to Japan, with scones, butter and pots of strawberry jam [from the Fruity Jam Company] and clotted cream, was amazing. For me, one of the best things was working with a new tea-room team, waiting staff and cooks, all Japanese. I had to have a translator.”
While there was the obvious novelty, it proved that there was a willing market for specialist teas.
“We now export to Mitsukoshi, one of the major department stores in Japan. We would like to do more teashop projects with them in the future to highlight our brand. It would be beautiful and wonderful to do it again. We are also exporting to Hong Kong and across Europe but there is growing interest from United States and Russia.”
Erica made it her job to visit tea plantations in China, Sri Lanka and meet with the tea masters and select the freshest leaves. This was part of her ‘tea pilgrimage’ to source the best leaves. And there are plenty of hill-top plantations to see around the world.
According to International Tea Commission statistics, China remains the top grower with 1,761m kg, in 2012, followed by India, with 1,111m, then Kenya with 369m and Sri Lanka with 336m, while other tea nations are Vietnam, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania.
Tea production has grown to 4,527m from 3,879m in 2008. Massive domestic consumption in China and India means Kenya is the world’s leading exporter, followed by China and then Sri Lanka, with India fourth. In 2012, Sri Lanka made the highest price on international auctions for its tea, at $3.07 a kg, against $2.28 for Indian, and $2.88 for Kenyan tea.
What eteaket offers is an astonishing diversity of tea, with its various tastes. While many refined Scots who eschew builder’s tea have long been familiar with Assam, Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong and Earl Grey, there is now a cornucopia of teas, with black, green and herbal teas. eteaket have introduced the Edinburgh tea set to Rooibos teas from South
Africa, gunpowder tea from China, green Yerba Mate from Latin America, and Gen Mai Cha from Japan.
“It’s interesting how a brand works in different market places. The reason our brand works so well in Asia is the British heritage but also the design and the packaging. It is a strong product on the shelf and its looks different.”
eteaket’s market share is the equivalent to a quarter-pound packet of tea in one of these large wooden tea-chests, once beloved by house-removers.
“The market for us is in speciality tea and brands. Our Chilli Rooibos or Blooming Marvellous [a mix of green Chinese sencha leaves coupled with mallow and sunflower petals with vanilla] are unique to us.”
“For us, it is important to go back to the source and see where the tea is coming from. When you are selling, it helps you understand the process and what goes into it.”
Erica has been helped by Scottish Development International and was part of the mission to Hong Kong. She also attended Anuga, the largest trade food fair in the world in Cologne. A year ago, eteaket was part of Santander’s Breakthrough International trade mission programme to New York along with nine other female business owners. Erica admitted she was perturbed about exporting horror stories to the United States. Perhaps her legal background was kicking in because she said there were concerns about how litigious it can be. But it was a great opportunity and is a potentially vast market for eteaket.
“Four years ago, when I came on board, the online wasn’t something we had developed. We only had a handful of wholesale customers and we weren’t concentrating on this side of the business. We now have hundreds and work with distributors and exporters. So our growth has been impressive.”
Growth has been a 220% increase in the last two years, with turnover touching £500,000.
The celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus is also a long-standing customer, with eteaket supplying five Michelin star restaurants, among them Scotland’s Tom Kitchin, a number of top-grade hotels, as well as niche cafes, delis and bistros.
“We don’t supply to the big supermarkets. It is something we have chosen not to do. We like who we work with. We are independent. People are surprised when they meet me or Erica at a trade show and we say we are a small Scottish business rather than a brand from a multi-national food business. We have the autonomy to go off and do new blends, and launch things that we think are going to work. While the branding is important, it is the quality of the product that sells.”
Sarah Chanter has taken the lead on all the design, working with her old college. She set a brief for the illustrations from fourth-year students. The competition was won by Milly Wood, who was inspired by American folk art and design of the 1930s. The leaping horses, the ceremonial elephants and the flower designs now grace the packets. Milly’s latest drawing is on the Chilli Rooibos loose leaf tea, with the package designed by Sarah. The tea is a blend of Rooibos, rosebuds, safflower petals, peony petals and chilli pieces.
“Her illustrations are beautiful and we get so many compliments. We like to add to our range every year.”
eteaket has been working with Not On The High Street.com, the award-winning website set up by entrepreneurs Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish in 2006, and selected for the TechCityUK’s Future Fifty programme. For the tea specialists, social media has been a blessing with regular updates on Erica’s excursions and the promotion of events, and even live music in the teashop. Does she think they might expand the teashop from its cosy basement in Edinburgh’s Frederick Street? After all, it’s a must-visit in the Lonely Planet guide to Scotland.
“It’s something we are always looking at. The internet and wholesale growth has taken off for us. Although, the biggest complaint I get about this place is that there is always a queue, so demand suggests we could probably open an over-spill,” she laughs.
“We have our regulars but there is a mix of people from students, tourists, across the generations, who enjoy over breakfast, brunch and afternoon tea with scones and strawberry jam. We are not aimed at one demographic. I always think it is a special thing to come here. It’s not like going to a high-street chain.”
The ethical dimension of the business also remains at the heart of their thinking, as next year they will be a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership which improves the lives of tea workers. Their charity work is Cuppa For Causes, raising money for Aberlour, the children’s charity with a gift-voucher drop, and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. And Sarah and the team support the Bethany Care Van, which distributes food and clothing to the homeless.
The recent news that the Wee Tea Company has produced tea from its bushes in Scotland at Amulree in Perthshire is also exciting news.
“Scotland has a great heritage with the tea industry. We took part at a tea festival in Laurenckirk in Aberdeenshire, which celebrated the influences of James Taylor, the importer of Earl Grey, and Thomas Lipton, an iconic Scottish business figure. Tea is such a hardy plant, it’s exciting to see if it will grow successfully in Scotland.”
You can already see Sarah’s brain whirring on how tender Scottish leaves might be blended with jasmine or gen mai cha. eteaket is already moving into tea-based cocktails and tea-beers, which are now being taken up by trendier bars looking for something new.
As a 29-year-old, managing a rapidly expanding business, what challenges does she face? “The good thing is no two days are the same, the bad thing is that no two days are ever the same. You can come prepared for your working day with a list and then there’s a curve ball with a huge order that wants immediate delivery.
But the sense of achievement when you are able to deliver is brilliant. No matter how hard the day, you’re always picked up by a nice review on TripAdvisor or an email from a happy customer.”
Sarah is methodical about the figures and sales and likes to see everything laid out on spread sheets.“I’ve picked up so much over the past four years, but there’s more I can be learning.”
As Erica’s business shareholding partner, Sarah says they share the load. “We kind of do a bit of everything each. I do a lot of the marketing, design, public relations, online activity, while Erica is doing the potential export growth and tea training – and we both look after customer relationships. Erica’s taste buds for the tea are amazing: she knows what is the best tea, before even drinking it. Hopefully, this is something that one day I will learn.”
Sarah, who lives in Stockbridge and walks to work most days, is a keen runner; she’s hoping to undertake a marathon, possibly the Paris event, and also the Mighty Deerstalker in muddy March. For Sarah and Erica, eteaket is breaking the surface of a massive market.
Meantime, eteaket also sells coffee too, which is roasted by Edinburgh-based Artisan Roast. But that’s another story.