Our family has long been a connoisseur of Darjeeling tea. Growing up in Bengal, it is hard not to be.
Later on, when I started living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to experience the cult of wine in Napa Valley and the surrounding wine countries. One September, I even worked in a vineyard in Oregon, pruning grapes, while visiting my friend Dave Chen, whose Patton Valley vineyard is a small producer of fine Pinot Noir.
My curiosity about business led me to ask the question, why is India not capable of marketing tea the way wine is marketed by California, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, and of course, France and Italy?
My travels have taken me through the wineries in Bordeaux and Tuscany, as well as the Tea Estates in Darjeeling. In fact, in January 2006, we stayed in Glenburn Tea Estate, a spectacularly renovated Bungalow, and it is there that my thoughts on how to market Darjeeling Tea started coming together.
So, when we started Darjeeling, our Tea Lounge venture, in 2009, the strategy of how we were going to play our cards was well thought through. We did pretty extensive analysis on how the tea industry operated, and had determined certain fundamental business model shifts that were required.
Our first observation was that Tea was treated as a commodity, and sold in bulk, mostly. As a result, the big brands like Lipton and Tetley were buying in bulk, blending to achieve a certain relatively low cost structure, and producing not very good tea in tea bags.
In contrast, the top wines are the pride and joy of their makers, crafted with tremendous passion.
At Glenburn, the manager of the estate had explained some of the details of the four flushes of tea: First, Second, Monsoon and Autumn flush. Of these, the Monsoon flush is not good tea. But Glenburn’s First, Second and Autumn flushes were all splendid.
My thought was that if some of the 80 odd Tea Estates in Darjeeling were taught to produce their own tea, crafted in a similar way as wine is done, and marketed under their own labels, that would be the way to create a classy positioning for Darjeeling Tea in the world market.
In 2010, therefore, we set up partnerships with 10 Estates from which we would buy tea to sell to consumers, not as a commodity, but as a branded product.
We also launched our Tea Lounge brand, Darjeeling, and modeled it after the Starbucks concept. However, unlike Starbucks, it was an elegant lounge that served the choicest Darjeeling tea (10 Estates, 3 flushes from each), and a selection of delicate accompaniments like tea sandwiches, crumpets and pastries, served in beautiful European porcelain tea sets.
We started with lounges in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad, and Chennai. By 2012, we had multiple lounges in each of those cities, as well as in London, Paris, Rome, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Barcelona.
By 2015, we had penetrated North America, Europe, China, and Latin America, as well as India, of course, in a very meaningful way. At that point, we owned 40 of the 80 odd estates in Darjeeling. We not only sold packaged tea through our Lounges, we also had a large market share at the high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, etc.
We were marketing about 150 different labels of tea, and we created an entire vocabulary around how to understand and appreciate tea – not only by taste, but also as a way of life.
“Afternoon Tea at Darjeeling,” wrote the New York Times, “is the new way of doing business.” Slow, refined, and grounded in human relationships – that was the essence of the Darjeeling brand.
We were not about WiFi. In fact, we did not allow laptops in the lounges at all.
In 2018, we entered a new business, not so much for revenue or profitability reasons, but rather for branding reasons. At each of our 40 Estates in the Darjeeling Himalayas, we created 5-8 room boutique hotels. For this, our model was the Glenburn experience – luxurious, splendidly beautiful, and steeped in the warmth of hospitality that was characteristic of our tea garden staff. [Read my North Bengal Travelogue for a taste of the Glenburn experience.]
This was a reliving of the British Raj experience that tourists from all over the world came to savor.
My dream, by 2020, had come true. Darjeeling, the queen of the Himalayas, was shining in full glory again, with the magnificent snow-capped Kanchendzonga range smiling in approval. And our $4 Billion enterprise was serving cups and cups of superb tea to a world of newly created connoisseurs.
A call to Indian entrepreneurs everywhere, Vision India 2020 challenges and inspires readers to build the future now. In this “futuristic retrospective,” author Sramana Mitra shows how over the next decade, start-up companies in India could be turned into billion-dollar enterprises. Vision India 2020, which encompasses a wide range of sectors from technology to infrastructure, healthcare to education, environmental issues to entertainment, proves how even the most sizeable problems can be solved by exercising bold, ambitious measures. Renowned in the business world, author Sramana Mitra conceived Vision India 2020 from her years of experience as a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and entrepreneur. Well aware of the challenges facing today’s aspiring entrepreneurs, Mitra provides strategies, business models, references, and comparables as a guide to help entrepreneurs manifest their own world-changing ideas.
This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020