From Starbucks to Star Wars

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Yesterday was just like any other day. I got up (far too) early, made a pint o’ Earl, poured cereal, basked in the morning meditation, then went to work. While at work, I did what I normally did…found moments of quiet solace to check my phone. Imagine my shock-‘n-awe when I was greeted by several updates on the Plus That Is Google feed about Teavana being bought out…

By Starbucks.

For 620 million dollars.

The one who broke the news to our little pocket of the tea community was Rachel Carter of I Heart Teas, and our steeping subculture dropped its collective jaw. It took me a moment (or five) to effectively collect mine from the proverbial floor. At first, I wanted to nerd-rage, but then…I had a moment to think on the implications. This might actually be a good thing, I mused.

I have a love-hate relationship with Teavana, as most right-thinking steep-people (steeple?) do. On the one hand, their blends are awesome. C’mon, you know they are – if you’re in to that sorta thing. They actually made chamomile ice-able. That alone deserves a gold star. What aren’t so great are their upselling practices.

Only one example comes to mind: I was hunting down a specific blend with strawberries in it, and the douche-y bro-vendor tried to sell me genmaicha blended with popcorn. No, not the regular rice-popped stuff in normal genmaicha. Actual popcorn. I don’t like genmaicha, and I loathe wet popcorn. He insisted it had a strawberry smell, and I wanted to hit him repeatedly with a canister.

My most infuriating exposure to the tea chain was when I interviewed for them. *Le sigh* Yes, I actually applied for a job at one of their locales. Judge away. During the interview, I was given an opportunity to drink tea while talking. Bad idea, since I was motormouthing a mile a minute. Everything was going relatively well until the interviewer said this phrase:

“We aren’t exactly used car salesmen, but we walk the fine line.”

Everything went downhill from there. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I’m a tea geek, sure, but I’m not a salesman. I don’t even look the part. (I.e. I’m not a cute girl in librarian glasses. Same reason I didn’t get tea jobs elsewhere.)

In short, my history with the chain is dicey but amicable. When I read of the buy-out, I immediately thought of Starbucks’s in-house label, Tazo. While they did little to change the philosophy of that brand, from what I heard from others, there was a slight dip in quality. However, in recent years, they seem to have changed their practices a bit. Example: Switching from teabags to tea sachets for their retail line.

Speaking of retail, Starbucks earlier announced that Tazo would be turned into a brick-‘n-mortar op a la Adagio. If they already had a brand, why the acquisition of another? The answer was obvious.

I couldn’t help but compare the buy-out to another famous acquisition from a couple of weeks back. Starbucks was Disney, and Teavana was Lucasfilm. Think about it.

Imaged mooched from Derek Chappell

Teavana started off as a boutique op out of the unassuming – and un-tea-like – locale of Atlanta, GA. At first, they were focused on bringing knowledge of loose-leaf tea to the masses. However, as they grew, so did their marketing strategy. In the successive (and successful) years, they became known for some questionable decisions.

Lucasfilm started off as a bastion for truly independent filmmaking. Self-sufficient and self-sustaining. As decades rolled by, their acumen changed. Star Wars, once a property that could do no wrong, was given a corporatized treatment in later incarnations. And it showed. Oh, dear God, did it show.

Disney is a bloated behemoth, and so is Starbucks. Both started off in idealistic territory, but grew too big for their britches. However, in recent years, something has shifted. They’ve taken risks. Some have paid off, others haven’t. In the case with Disney, they made John Carter and The Avengers. One bombed, the other was a blockbuster. Starbucks’s brick-‘n-mortaring of Tazo could be viewed in the same light.

What I’m saying is this: Starbucks may be on to something. There’s no denying that a tea renaissance – to coin James Norwood Pratt – is in the making, much like the “third wave” coffee movement of yesteryear. It is only natural for a large company to look at the potential of that and act on it accordingly. For better or worse, Teavana was one of the most familiar names in tea, right behind Lipton. Questionable, though there approach was, they did stress the strengths of loose leaf tea over teabags.

Perhaps the Starbucking of Teavana might gentle some of its more questionable practices. That might be wishful thinking, but – other than the price for macchiato – Starbucks still has an accessible brand. I’m personally looking forward to seeing what happens, just like I’m looking forward to a new Star Wars movie.

With cautious optimism.

Image mooched from Halfsilk.com

17 Comments

  1. Brett says:

    Great Post G.

    My favorite part = “Disney is a bloated behemoth, and so is Starbucks.” I totally agree with that.

    Bloated behemoths can, occasionally, produce some worthy stuff (the muppet movie for example) but usually it just loads of drivel. For the quality that you and I desire… one must look to the little guys.)

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Brett. While the larger beasts may serve as an introduction, I leave it to the smaller ops (like yours) to truly enlighten.

  2. Margo Hutchinson says:

    I think it will be positive and further “tea”…it is really becoming the “in” thing and so tasty and good for you! I am okay with it!

  3. I am, too. If Starbucks does one thing, it’s sell a product. They aren’t pushy…just pricy.

  4. Steph W says:

    It will be very interesting to see what happens with the Tazo line, too….and the pilot “blend it yourself” store they just opened in Seattle.

    1. Whoah, I totally forgot it was a blend-it-yourself op. Kinda like “Build-a-Bear” for tea!

      1. Avatar of jackie jackie says:

        I”m just dropping a link into the forum to a blog post elsewhere with plenty of good pics of the new store.

  5. Agreed I hope they clue their new Teavana employees in to being a little more relaxed when it comes to selling tea and tea wares…

    1. Exactly, if there’s one thing that can be said for Starbucks baristas, they’re chill to the point of comatose.

  6. Avatar of jackie jackie says:

    I often pick up news from twitter but the Teavana sale I actually first saw on Tea Trade posted by @xavier in the activity stream. Like you I was floored. Then I called Pete and he’d just heard too.
    What I like about Starbucks buying Teavana is that I think they can make tea drinking more main stream. They certainly have the economic power to do so. I don’t think the little independents need worry too much because the more people are introduced to tea, the more people will one day move beyond the entry levels and spill into speciality teas.
    People need to discover tea and if Starbucks can afford the marketing that’s the direction we’ll move in. That makes me quite happy.

  7. Ah shoot, I missed @Xavier‘s post on it. I wasn’t on Tea Trade at the time I saw it. I actually found it from Michael J. Coffey…who – in turn – learned about it from @iheartteas.

    I would like to see a “Teaconomics” take on the whole thing soon, though. Get on that, @Xavier.

  8. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

    I am thinking about it,
    It will be easier for me since I don’t really know Teavana (although I drink from time to time in a Starbucks).

    1. Yes! Some impartiality will be what is needed.

      1. Avatar of xavier xavier says:

        Impartiality? I am a human so I am partial.

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