Few industries have experienced more turbulence and uncertainty during the recent recession than the tea room industry. The classic English tea room, which has been a pillar of daily life on these shores for over two centuries, has never been more vulnerable than it is now, with visitor patterns oscillating wildly as a result of the economic downturn.
Several tea rooms have suffered a significant decline in footfall and revenue during the recession. Joe Armstrong, proprietor of Byermoor Tea Rooms in the North East, told us: “Business is dreadful at the moment, and not making any profit. The cost of fuel means people can’t drive around as they used to do. Also, tea rooms are traditionally for the older generation, and they haven’t got the cash they used to have.”
But for every tea room that’s struggling, you can find one which is continuing to thrive despite the tough economic climate. One such outlet is The Bridge Tea Rooms in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, which won the coveted title of Britain’s Top Tea Place in 2009. The Bridge’s owner, Alison Hayward, says that business is booming at the moment, and believes that starting a tea room remains a good idea, even during the recession.
“Tea rooms are still quite popular – in fact there aren’t enough of them. There’s a coffee shop every 200 yards on the high street, but finding a tea room is difficult, so there’s a gap in the market.”
Hayward’s view would suggest that a tea shop can still present a viable business opportunity, with the right strategy and people in place. If you’re prepared to ride the inevitable fluctuations in footfall, and determined to pursue the highest standards of quality, you may have the tools to succeed.
Who is it suited to?
Tea shops may be a haven of relaxation for their patrons, but if you’re running one, the pace of daily life is altogether different. A tea shop, by its very nature, demands hours of hard work – you have to pour countless hours into preparing your core product, and fashioning an environment which is quaint and welcoming. To create the laid-back vibe essential to any tea shop, you have to select each item of furniture and ornamentation carefully, and you’ll probably have to scour the local craft shops and antiques stores if you want to create a unique visitor experience.
The days will also be quite long – you'll probably open mid-morning, and then after lunch and into the afternoon things will probably be busy. Each of the proprietors we spoke to said that afternoon tea constituted their busiest period of the day; while many businesses are winding down in late afternoon, a tea shop is revving up to full capacity.
You've also got to be a people person. You're going to be in contact with the public, pretty much all of the time. A welcoming face is important. "If you're not a people person yourself, you need a frontman or woman, who is, instead. It's not like walking into a burger bar, the pace has got to be relaxed," says Paul Williamson from Ernest Wilson's business agents in Bradford.
You also need to know your area so that you can field questions from your customers. If they're tourists, they're likely to be curious about what there is to see in the area. Perhaps they'll want to know of any good local accommodation or the way to the station or the history of a local attraction. They'll remember you if you're able to be helpful. If you don't already know these things, you might want to do your homework and read up on local history.
Finally, you have to be able to modernise. The tea shop may be a business rooted in history and classic values, but people’s tastes are constantly evolving. This is clearly demonstrated in research compiled by market analyst Mintel, showing that sales of standard tea bags have dropped 16% over the past two years, while sales of fruit and herbal teas have risen by 30%, and speciality teas, such as green tea, have experienced a 50% surge. If you want to keep in step with the market, you have to ride these trends.