Afternoon tea, thought to be the preserve of grande dame hotel dining rooms, is modernising and marketing itself to the masses. Ian Boughton finds out how operators are creating a treat that is anything but traditional.
Just before the first lockdown, a woman in East Anglia took the familiar route of leaving her day job to fulfil her dream of opening a café. But she chose an unusual strategy – she specialised in home or office delivery of a full afternoon tea.
At first, Laura Horne of Laura's Afternoon Teas of Wymondham had a handful of orders a day at around £12-£14 per head. Then lockdown happened – and orders shot up. She had to take on staff. This shows what the café trade has long known – that afternoon tea is a concept that sells, and in many different forms.
All the publicity for afternoon tea generally goes to the high-end venues in London – but in the last Afternoon Tea Awards several out-of-town venues were commended, and two of them were in-house cafés in retail stores. And the top-line coffee houses have seen the potential as well – the Gentlemen Baristas of Covent Garden has come up with an afternoon tea presented in a picnic basket (those who return the basket receive a free drink).
It shows that, in the words of the Beverage Standards Association: "Afternoon tea can be profitable for all kinds of catering operation, because it is a scaleable thing – it is impressive how local cafés have created their own versions of it. We have seen a corner café offering the full menu of sandwiches and scones with cream and jam, at under £10 – and they made money, promoting it at the ‘classic English cuppa' end of the market, with really good tea, brewed in a proper Brown Betty and served on decent china."
Afternoon tea can be profitable for all kinds of catering operation, because it is a scaleable thing
Unsurprisingly, Taylors of Harrogate agrees that "a proper, everyday brew" is a perfectly acceptable base for an afternoon tea experience. Out-of-home manager Natalie King says: "A really nice example is the Fodder farm shop and café in Harrogate, which serves Yorkshire Tea with its three-tier trays (£30 for two people).
"A proper everyday brew should be at the heart of any afternoon tea menu, whether in a local café or a high-end hotel or stately home. Yorkshire Tea pairs perfectly with cakes and sandwiches, and offering unlimited tea can be a brilliant low-cost way to make your experience stand out. This will be perceived as excellent value."
There are interesting variations within the standard tea menu, says Zayd Idrissi, chief executive at Sultan Tea.
"For afternoon tea with a twist I suggest our Mint Grey Tea. This revisits the classic Earl Grey with a touch of Moroccan charm, lightly perfumed with notes of citrus, lemon and bergamot and finished with the freshness of the mint, which all contrast, in an intense palette of flavours. We are the only producers of this tea."
The tea element of the experience does not have to cost the earth, says Louise Cheadle, co-founder of Teapigs, pioneer of the ‘tea temple' whole-leaf teabags.
"Afternoon tea offers a premium ‘theatre' experience that will keep your customers engaged. We suggest pairing your teas with your choice of food items, because customers like exciting tea pairings which take them out of their comfort zone. You can stand out from the crowd and cater to the increasing number of customers who are behind the rise in popularity of green teas and herbal infusions – pair our light Mao Feng green tea with a salmon or cucumber sandwich and then finish off by serving our Superfruit infusion with a rich chocolate brownie. By pairing a different tea with every tier of your tray, you're offering a delicious experience."
Pairing is being considered by Marc Hardiman, head chef at the 10 Degrees bar at Galvin at Windows, on top of London's Hilton on Park Lane. He has created three menus: the Classic at £49 per person, the Gin (£59) and the Champagne (£63). Rather curiously, service is from a bird cage suspended from a tree branch at the side of the table.
"After serving afternoon teas for the last 20 years, I have found that people are willing to try new and different things, though English Breakfast will always be the number one choice. We work with Canton Tea, and I believe in its philosophy of delivering wild, biodynamic and rare teas.
"We have decided to throw in a few to tantalise the tastebuds, such as Chocolate Noir, which is a tea with a hint of chocolate; Wild Vietnamese black, which is blended with cinnamon bark; and the Big Red Robe, which Canton Tea describes as ‘a famous oolong with a mineral profile, slow-roasted over local charcoal, creating rich notes of cocoa... awe-inspiring with reverential status'. This is our most glamorous tea – it is rumoured that the first kilo of this rare tea is sent to the Queen every year!
"The afternoon tea experience is changing constantly and the scope for food and tea pairings is becoming more widespread. It will be interesting to see where we end up – we could be serving teas in much the same way we serve a wine pairing with our tasting menu."
We could be serving teas in much the same way we serve a wine pairing with our tasting menu
At Tetley, senior brand manager Michelle Jee also sees the progression: "The tradition continues to evolve, with operators offering eccentric twists to the classic high tea menu. In the future, tea sommeliers will play a huge part in the ceremony – customers are hungry for the ‘theatre' of this British tea ritual, and they respond well to informed serving staff. Operators should consider staff tea-tasting sessions, so staff have the confidence to advise how certain teas can be taken."
Eat your drink
The concept of the ‘tea sommelier' has been touted for many years now, and Bernadine Tay of Quinteassential is one who consults with chefs on the uses of tea.
"Tea can be both enjoyed with food and used as an ingredient. Earl Grey is such a special combination of flavours that it works beautifully in desserts, such as a mousse or an éclair, it tastes great in a Pornstar Martini cocktail and it can be used for smoking salmon.
"We have also worked to create beautiful tea-infused desserts, such as Imperial Chocolate Pavé, a rich and decadent chocolate ganache cake infused with Earl Grey. It has never been more important to be this creative: there can be tea jelly, tea crème brûlée, ice-cream, tea granita, tea consommé and tea gravy, such as in Paul Askew's pork dish at the Art School restaurant in Liverpool."
It is in the Afternoon Tea awards that the specialists really extend their imagination. The Berkeley in London runs a Pret-a-Portea themed tea, with cakes based on fashion: the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams event featured a biscuit depicting the Bar Suit, which was part of Dior's debut collection in 1947.
Another coffee specialist in the market is the Extract roastery, where marketing manager Gemma Screen sees afternoon tea developing across a wider range of hospitality outlets.
"Customers have become more adventurous, and there's a much bigger interest in teas with added health benefits, so a selection that appeals to customers looking for options with lower caffeine, sugar and dairy options is now a ‘must' for the modern afternoon tea experience. One of our most popular is the organic citrus rooibos, a naturally caffeine-free tea blended with citrus, marigold petals and lemongrass oils.
"Afternoon tea has now proven popular in a variety of settings, from country pubs to museums and farm shops. Venues that celebrate the uniqueness of their setting are able to create really special afternoon tea experiences – the Roman Baths museum in Bath offers an atmospheric afternoon tea in the Pump Rooms (including the Somerset High Tea of local produce including a cider and apple cake), and Searcys St Pancras in London offers a travel-themed afternoon tea presented in a suitcase. Meanwhile, Anna Cake Couture in Bristol offers a unique ‘cake flight' afternoon tea."
Venues that celebrate the uniqueness of their setting are able to create really special afternoon tea experiences
And the rest
The Halo Top Creamery, an American ice-cream company, has worked with the Bluebird Café in London's Chelsea to create a complete ice-cream tea menu. The usual scones, finger sandwiches and cake were replaced with ice-cream versions, including Red Velvet Scones, which "took the classic British scone to the next level, incorporating its decadent and all-American ice-cream". The Bluebird Frozen Afternoon Tea was priced at £21.50 per person.
And there have been some weird and wonderful afternoon tea themes: the Tower Eye in Sydney, Australia, created an all-hazelnut menu to celebrate World Nutella Day at $50 a head. The Norfolk Alpacas organisation created an afternoon tea with alpaca-shaped teapots and cakes, followed by the chance to take an alpaca for a walk, from £25 per person. Similarly, in Scotland there is the ‘Tea with Naughty Sheep' experience, set in an old stone farmhouse. And probably the most one-up experience has to be afternoon tea with the Queen, set in a mocked-up Royal garden party setting inside Madame Tussaud's… complete with Her Majesty.
Sweets and savouries are a major part of afternoon tea, but the challenge is to create them efficiently, at reasonable cost.
"Afternoon tea at a reasonable price can tempt customers, and it's definitely easier to offer the experience at a lower price if you have quality products that make preparation quicker and more cost-effective," remarks Fabien Levet, commercial manager at Pidy.
His speciality is in ready-to-fill pastry products (pictured), to which the operator adds their own finishing touches. For example, says Pidy, the Water Mill Tearooms at Ringstead, in Northamptonshire, has reported that "ready-to-go pastry cases means that we can use our time preparing quick treats that still have that home-made feel, and which our customers rave about. We even make a mojito-style tartlet which combines home-made lemon curd infused with mint leaves and a hint of rum – it's really good fun to play around with these ideas."
- Canton Tea www.cantontea.com 0203 476 6991
- Extract www.extractcoffee.co.uk 0117 9554976
- Pidy www.pidy.co.uk 01604 705 666
- Quinteassential www.quinteassential.co.uk 01244 689 302
- Sultan www.sultantea.com 07833 333 304
- Taylor www.taylorsofharrogate.co.uk 0800 328 1886
- Teapigs www.teapigs.co.uk 0203 141 2948
- Tetley www.tetleyfoodservice.co.uk 0800 028 3728