Syed Azeem first got acquainted with the workings of the tea industry when as a class eight student; he would zoom off after school to Standard Tea, the outlet run by his father in Bengaluru’s Russel Market. Now decades later, as a tea connoisseur, tea garden owner and tea entrepreneur, he is planning to aggressively expand the business commissioned by his father, while overseeing the operations of his baby, Tea Journey, a café started with the intention of selling tea leaves. Over a chat with RITZ, he talks about his plans and the steaming hot tea market in Bengaluru.
Syed Azeem seems visibly excited about his latest acquisition – a 336 acre tea garden situated on a very fertile piece of land near the Brahmaputra River in Assam. That’s where he is getting thoroughly ingrained in the cultivation of tea, right from weeding and tilling the soil, arranging the plantation into neat plots, sowing the seeds, watering the plants and plucking the buds. At the garden, he is focused on organic green tea, for “the demand is high as people are realising the health benefits associated with it,” says Azeem. Upon production, the green tea will be retailed from his Standard Tea outlets in Bengaluru, whose history dates back to the 1960s, when his father first forayed into the tea business by sourcing and selling tea mainly to hoteliers.
“My father was into wholesale. I happened to suggest that it’s time to look at things differently, by targeting retail customers as well. My plan was to go B2C (business to customer) from B2B (business to business). Though initially he rejected the idea, he came back saying we should do it,” reminisces Azeem.
Post his dad’s green signal, Azeem got in touch with tea growers in Assam, built healthy relationships with them and started sourcing the best teas and mixing and creating the blends. He then started selling to retail customers from his primary outlet at Russel Market with varieties such as oolong, green, black, white, Darjeeling and more.
Syed’s plan is to go aggressive by opening about 30 more outlets in Bengaluru in the next seven years. Belgaum is another city he is thinking of venturing into, while he has already stepped into Hyderabad via a franchisee
“Customers can come, taste the tea, understand the blends, customise it to their preferences and make a purchase. The Russel Market outlet sees about 500 people walking in each day,” says Azeem, who now boasts of four Standard Tea outlets in Bengaluru.
Though he was formally inducted into the business post college, he did have quite an early start, when he used to rush off to Russel Market after completing his school homework, observe his father interacting with others, try and comprehend the workings of the outlet, and gauge customer requirements. “Later, I joined an evening college so that I could be at the store the entire day,” he recalls.
Having been in the business of tea for a considerable while, Azeem realised that alongside customers who buy tea from his outlets to make themselves a hot cup when at home, there exists a bunch of people who would rather pay Rs 150 – 200 for a ready-to-drink cup of tea, than take the effort of making it themselves. That’s when he hit upon the idea of starting Tea Journey, a tea café in the Indiranagar hotspot of the city.
“Tea Journey didn’t really start off as a café per se. It was basically a counter with tea leaves where people could come and have tea along with some snacks. Now I want to make Tea Journey as the drinking partner for Standard Tea. A place where people can come, relax with snacks and order some exotic teas and blends.” From ice teas like peach, mango, banana, orange, pineapple, mint; to tea smoothies such as green banana, papaya berry, and tea lattes, the menu is diverse and seeks to lure in the happy-go-lucky crowd. “We see at least 350 people coming in each day and have expanded our food menu since people want more options to munch on with their teas,” says Azeem.
His plan next is to go aggressive with Standard Tea by opening about 30 more outlets within Bengaluru in the next seven years. Belgaum is another city he is thinking of venturing into, while he has already stepped into Hyderabad via a franchisee. “Bengaluru has a lot of potential. The city can easily absorb 30 more of my outlets where people can come and experience tea and then make a purchase.”
Azeem credits the cosmopolitan outlook of Bengaluru for the welcoming atmosphere enjoyed by tea. Although nationally tea is more popular when compared to coffee, with 10 cups being consumed for every 1 cup of coffee, the Garden City has been a coffee stronghold, thanks to its proximity to the coffee plantations of Karnataka and a strong coffee drinking tradition.
“Yes, Bengaluru is a nascent market for tea. But people here are gradually getting aware of the different teas and are experimenting with the varieties. My guess is that the market for tea in this city is growing at 30 percent per year and we are growing at almost the same rate.’’
So which is the most popular variety at Tea Journey and Standard Tea? “Lots of green tea is going off the shelf. The regular chai will always sell. We have a blend of Assam tea which is also doing well,” says Azeem, adding that the blacks, oolongs, and white teas are mostly preferred by the younger generation.
What about tea from the Nilgiris? Is Azeem interested in perhaps buying a tea garden there, considering it’s so close to Bengaluru? “But the soil quality is not as good as in Assam. That state is God’s gift to the tea industry.”
India, being one of the world’s foremost tea producers and exporters, produced 1,233.14 million kg of tea in 2015-16 and exported 232.92 million kg. Azeem however holds the opinion that tea packs from some of the biggest national and international brands would fade off over time, while local producers and retailers would hold sway. “In Mumbai, Hyderabad and Gujarat, it’s the local players who are doing well. Bengaluru is perhaps one of the few markets where branded teas are still dominating retail shelves. But with more discerning consumers, even this city would gladly embrace the local brands, and gradually start moving away from the biggies.”