Can you actually mass-market Zen tranquility—and make a profit off it? Few companies other than Starbucks would seem to be in a position to try. If the coffee giant’s $620 million purchase of tea emporium Teavana last November simply seemed like a move to corner the market on all hot steaming beverages, today we get a glimpse of what Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sees as the future of tea in America—and it’s very gray.
As in Zen gray, like the color where the sea and foggy sky become one, way out there on the horizon, inspiring meditations on eternity and the transient nature of existence. Or it’s the color of your MacBook. Take your pick. But that gray is the dominant tone in Starbucks’—er, Teavana’s—first tea bar, just opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the promo pics of the new tea bar posted at USA Today, even the customers all appear to be sporting that particular gray. It all seems like some futuristic movie set from late '90s—probably a Tom Cruise vehicle.
Another outpost of Teavana Fine Teas + Tea Bar is slated to open on Starbucks’ home turf of Seattle next month, with an ultimate goal of opening at least 1,000 across the country, none of which will reference the Starbucks brand. Still, within a decade, Schultz boldy predicts in USA Today, “We’ll do for tea what we’ve done for coffee.”
Of course Schultz can brag like that, look at what he did for coffee: Transforming it from a workaday necessity to be had for a pittance in the office break room to a sippy-lidded lifestyle accessory costing upwards of five bucks per grande.
Nevertheless, industry analysts aren’t universally sold on the universal appeal of tea, even as it constitutes a $90 billion market worldwide and is second only to water as the beverage people drink most often, notes Forbes.
“This is Starbucks trying to make a boring category—tea—interesting,” one such analyst (obviously no fan of chai) tells the biz magazine. “I don’t believe Teavana will ever grow into what the Starbucks brand has become for one simple reason: tea lacks the major caffeine count. That sounds silly, but the bottom line is that in this day and age of frantic tech-driven lifestyles, people want to run on 100 mg of caffeine, and they will trade taste to make that happen.”
And, you know, as annoyingly over-caffeinated as the guy kinda sounds, he might be on to something. Ironically, for all Schultz’s gushing about his company’s new tea bar, he doesn’t seem to realize that, once upon a time, Starbucks wasn’t essentially just an upscale Shell station, with one on every corner where the masses bustle in and out to top off their tanks with high-priced lattes (and, at least in places like New York, avoid the public restroom at all costs). With its club chairs and coffeehouse vibe (all that jazz playing in the background), the Starbucks of, say, the early 1990s was actually supposed to be a place to sip and savor.
Yet as Schultz surveys his company’s new teahouse for a reporter, he notes the difference between Teavana and your average Starbucks today “is like night and day," saying, “It's much more zen-like than anything you'll find in a Starbucks store.”
All in all, Starbucks’ plans to transform the Teavana brand into a kind of anti-Starbucks seem more tenable than what appeared to be the tea company’s previous business model, which involved an army of smiling, low-paid and vaguely cultish tea acolytes hawking samples in the mall—forcing most of us into an awkward scramble to avoid them, much in the way our parents and grandparents ducked around the Hare Krishnas at the airport a generation ago.
As for the question of whether you can buy true tranquility in a disposable cup? Let’s leave that meditation for another day.