Interview

Imperial Tea Court

Roy Fong, Imperial Tea Court

September 2005

Your first teahouse has recently celebrated its twelfth anniversary. Has the popularity of tea in this country matched your original expectation, or have there been surprised along the way?

The growth of tea and our business has certainly exceeded my expectation since I didn't really know what to expect 12 years ago. It has been a wonderful twelve years (actually thirteen since it took one year to open the store).

You now have a second location in the Ferry Building. What changes in format have you made based on your experience with the first?

We try to offer a pure tea experience in our original store and after 12 years, we are somewhat successful. The second location offers more traditional food items to be served along with tea to ease the initial "shock" for new comers to tea since food are easier to understand, and to Chinese, food and tea are both art forms to be presented. We are in the process of opening a third location in Berkeley, CA, which will explore even further the idea of food and tea presentations.

Mixing tea and food is a formula that's working well for Ten Ren's Cha for Tea. Might the efforts of those trying to be the Starbucks of tea be misplaced, and the tea-inspired restaurant prove the formula that prevails in bringing tea to the masses?

I am not sure, but it seems to work for our Gerry Building store. I am sure some people only come for the food but it opens the door.

How do you traverse the fine line between keeping the experience of tea pure and tinkering with tradition so as to broaden its appeal?

I don't feel there's any problems since Chinese view tea and food as part of everyday life and there's never a wrong time to have tea or food. However, the sensible use of tea and food items not only compliments but help appeal as well.

The bubble tea phenomenon is most pronounced in your state. Do you find yourself tempted to appeal to this audience by sacrificing some of your products' authenticity?

I do not believe that you need to sacrifice anything, if I choose to do bubble tea it will be done well, if I am making teabags or flavor tea it doesn't mean a good job can not be done. I never have any issues with others using or doing things that are not the "best" or "traditional", I just do not agree with people who decides NOT to do a good job simply because of a price issue etc.

So might we one day see an Imperial Teappuccino?

I am trying to decide if I want to live in the US or China as I get older. If I continue business here, you will certainly see something different from me, however, I won't go as far as a "Teappuccino", there's plenty to do with good taste and within tradition.

If you return to China, might you consider developing a Chinese tea brand? Consumers are sure to pay extra to be assured of consistent quality from one year to the next.

it is a possibility, I am not sure what I will be doing just yet but I wanted to live near a tea farm some time in my life to really be in tune with tea and nature, it's impossible here in the US but I can virtually make it happen the next day I arrived China if I so choose. I am not a marketing person, rather I want to be a tea "artist."

How does the tea artist in you react to China's rapid development and urbanization? Will modernity adversely affect the art of tea?

If it's not one thing it's another, the current rapid development brings opportunities and distractions. I feel like there's so much to do that there's no time to worry about it. In due time, I just put my head down and go forward.

That doesn't sound very optimistic. Given your keen sense of the Chinese tea industry, what positive developments do you observe that give you cause for optimism?

Certainly the fact that people are willing and able to pay for high quality teas as well as all the new tea enterprises that are going up everyday are all good news. All of these things bring tea to a more important place in peoples' lives. There are also obviously many problems like pollution and overproduction, but those are facts of life. I choose to deal with it and let the chips fall where they may...

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