Afternoon tea has come a long way from the days of a simple cuppa and a sarnie. Now seen as a special treat rather than a daily occurence, the great English tradition can be a very profitable offering. Ian Boughton reports.
The classic afternoon tea experience has reached unheard-of heights - in prestigious Park Lane hotels it now costs £40 per head and is booked up 12 weeks in advance.
But the potential of this great English tradition is not confined to the big hotels. Afternoon tea is one of the most profitable offerings for anyone in the hospitality trade and can be presented in a vast number of different settings, different venues, and at different price points.
The standard concept is one which works in many settings, says Gill Hesketh, head of marketing at Clipper Teas.
"Afternoon tea is about taking an everyday happening and making it a special treat. It's about serving a delicious combination of sweet and savoury with a superb tea, and about providing your customer with an extraordinary experience of taste and style. Afternoon tea is not about a snatched cuppa with a scone."
The classic afternoon tea is a busy fixture in the expected places. The Tea Guild's reigning Top Tea Place is the Bridge Tea Rooms at Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, run by Roy and Alison Hayward, who have devised different versions of afternoon tea based on varieties and combinations of sandwich, scone and tea.
They have a simple tea with scones, clotted cream and strawberry preserve beginning at £5.95 per person, but then progress through the children's menu - tuna or ham sandwich, scone topped with chocolate spread and clotted cream, and milk shake - at £6.50, through to the full afternoon tea with herb-flavoured scones at £13.95 and a Champagne tea for two at £39.95.
This is how afternoon tea is developing, says the Tea Guild, and the key is to maximise every different feature.
Elsewhere, this is a subject to have fun with, says Marco Olmi, managing director at Drury Tea and Coffee Company. "For the canny caterer, tailoring the afternoon tea menu is a way of tapping into a market, and it can be shaped any way you want. An Italian café can do it, a Polish restaurant can do it. If you're based in Cheddar, you can create an afternoon tea based on the local cheese.
"Then you can set your afternoon tea to the right price point for your market. If I were challenged to produce a profit-making afternoon tea for a venue whose clientele would pay £10, I would first produce two kinds of sandwiches, because a true afternoon tea must be food-led, with the tea then matched to the food.
"You could possibly do a small amount of smoked salmon on that budget, but a cucumber, dill and sour cream sandwich would be very acceptable and considerably cheaper. For the other sandwich, make a feature of locally produced cheese or ham. Two or three kinds of home-made cake from your own kitchen will be very acceptable.
"If you have the salmon, then a great tea to go with it is Lapsang Souchong, and that's a tea which also goes very well with dark chocolate, which suggests what your cakes may be. But not everyone likes Lapsang Souchong, so offer the option of a Muscatel-like Darjeeling or a Darjeeling-Assam blend."
Drury has tested this idea at local cafés, such as the Cinnamon tearooms in Ealing, London, where Ann Khoshaba and Mary Jane Michael offer an "all-day" afternoon tea including finger sandwiches, scones with cream and cakes, all served on a three-tiered tray, with a pot of tea, for £6.95. It has found a niche market among the young-mums set.
Whatever the price point, all suppliers are agreed that presentation is the key to profit.
"The big difference between the out-of-home tea and coffee trades is that speciality coffee is likely to be better than you could make at home, whereas the tea is usually the same," observes Elaine Higginson, managing director at First Choice Coffee. "So, afternoon tea has to be an occasion that cannot easily be replicated at home. Think about the presentation - tea in a nice china pot and the clotted cream and jam in ramekins immediately create an ‘experience' impression."
But, she warns, don't cut corners. There is a good reason why the five-star hotels include "endless tea" in their price.
"I'm surprised more hotels and restaurants don't provide a ‘never-ending pot'. Tea is the focal point of the experience and so customers see free refills as real added-value, but it's also the least costly element of your service, so it doesn't hurt your margin."
That's true, agrees David Latchem, managing director at Café du Monde. The tea ingredient may cost no more than 10p per pot to return a price of £3, but to justify it remember your presentation and theatre.
He says: "Always use the two- or three-tier tray for the right impression and serve milk in a jug with the option of lemon. The sugar must be in a bowl, there must be a pot of hot water to refresh and a tea strainer with holder. It is also very elegant to offer the choice of speciality teas at table in a presentation box."
The "correct" choices of tea itself have evolved and several new varieties are quite acceptable, even in formal surroundings. At Good Earth Teas, commercial controller Dorothy Sieber says that a top-class white tea now has a valuable place in the afternoon menu.
"Our organic sweet citrus white tea has subtle hints of Californian oranges and lemons to add depth and intensity to the delicate silky flavour of white tea - you can make it a unique feature of your menu."
Consumers like the excitement of finding something new and special, says Jon Wild, sales and marketing director at Newby Teas. Growing interest in chocolate tea and strawberry and mango blends offers a new opportunity to the food-pairing aspect of afternoon tea. For instance, jasmine blossom tea now becomes a new offer with sultana scones, and Newby's Imperial Annapurna Green is an unexpected but effective choice to accompany fruit pavlova.
At Mighty Leaf Tea, managing director Alan Mellor extends the thinking. "Ladies in particular are prepared to try different drinks, and our fruity Green Tea Tropical goes especially well with a smoked salmon sandwich and the fruit flan that follows," he says.
"Orange Dulce black tea is marvellous with a chocolate gâteau or creamy dessert, and Chamomile Citrus herbal infusion pairs well with lightly flavoured foods like chicken and creamy cheeses."
Whatever your theme, says Andrea Stopher, customer marketing manager at Twinings, talk about it. She is in a curious position in marketing an out-of-home experience using a brand that can be found on any shop shelf, but she advises caterers to take the initiative.
"Do not undersell your afternoon tea experience. Remember, the high street coffee chains price a slice of cake at about £2.25, and their paninis can be up to £3.80. When you add the tea, you are looking at just under £8 for the coffee chain's equivalent of the afternoon tea menu. This should raise serious questions for tea shops who are pricing afternoon tea at less than £5.
"There is no reason why an afternoon tea experience which combines good tea, delicious food and a quality service shouldn't be charging more. A pot of Twinings loose second-flush Darjeeling could return as much as £4 in a hotel. Our signature Earl Grey or Traditional English could be £3.50, or a hand-stitched flowering tea could be upwards of £5.
"With the traditional selection of cakes, sandwiches and scones, your price should be in the region of £7 to £10 per person. If you wish to pitch a little higher, a glass of Champagne is a simple way to increase the price by £6 to £10 per person.
"Whatever it is that makes your ‘experience' stand apart - communicate it."
Café du Monde
Drury Tea and Coffee Company
020 7740 1100
First Choice Coffee
Good Earth Teas
Newby Teas 020 7251 8939
The Tea Guild 020 7371 7787
Teapigs 020 8568 2345
Twinings 01264 348181