Oon Yeoh interviews the founder of The Tea Republic, Sumita J.Singam-Takács.
Sumita J.Singam-Takacs has made a business out of her favourite beverage, tea, writes Oon Yeoh SHE’S the founder of The Tea Republic, both a physical cafe and an online store specialising in tea. Sumita J.Singam-Takacs did not plan to go into the food and beverage business to begin with. As a student, she was looking at a career in architectural design. After getting a Diploma in Fine Arts in Interior Design, she went on to pursue a degree in Interior Architecture, followed by a Masters in Architecture. She was serious about this topic and looked set to pursue a career in it. But then a fateful tasting of a French gourmet tea called Mariage Freres while she was holidaying in Seoul, South Korea, changed her outlook. “It had a hefty price tag of US$26 (RM115.40), which really intrigued me as I had never spent more than US$5 for a cup of tea before,” she recalls. “The blend was completely new to me. It was a rooibos tea flavoured with Bourbon vanilla. I still have the tag from the tea infuser which I keep as a memento.” That tea got her looking up other finer tea blends and before she knew it, she was hooked on the idea of starting a specialist tea cafe. Below, Sumita talks to SAVVY about her thirst for tea and success in running an offline and online business relating to her favourite beverage.
WITHOUT AN F&B BACKGROUND, WAS IT TOUGH GOING AT FIRST?
I wouldn’t say it was tough but more of a challenge, mainly having to think on your feet and solving problems of all shapes and sizes as they crop up. Having the support of family and friends was crucial. One of the first major challenges was having a full-time staff, whom we had invested a lot of time and energy training, not show up for work the day after the shop was opened!
WHAT MAKES YOUR CAFE DIFFERENT?
Beverage wise, we serve only tea and nothing else — unless you count water. And the majority of the tea labels we started with weren’t even available in the market. We introduced a lot of different tea to the local scene.
WAS HAVING AN E-COMMERCE SITE ALWAYS PART OF THE PLAN? Having a website was always part of the plan but not necessarily an e-commerce site. I envisioned the website as being just a source of information on tea and about the shop. The e-commerce part came later.
BUT IT’S NOW THE BULK OF YOUR BUSINESS, RIGHT?
Yes, it might be hard to believe but today, revenue from our online business is bigger — double to be precise — than our physical outlet.
WHAT DO YOU OFFER ON YOUR WEBSITE?
We currently have 18 tea blends on sale through our website http://ttr.com.my. As each order is freshly packed, the process is quite labour intensive, especially with larger orders. The ability to customise the tea range with personalised themes, messages and visuals appeals to many of our customers.
HOW DO YOU PROMOTE YOUR ONLINE STORE?
We do online advertising mainly through Facebook and Instagram. We also send out newsletters, especially when the festive seasons approach, updating our customers on the latest offerings as well as sharing articles and sometimes, even recipes with them. I enjoy sharing information on tea, gathered from tea journals, blogs and other tea websites that I frequent.
IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME AND START YOUR BUSINESS ALL OVER AGAIN, WOULD YOU FOREGO THE PHYSICAL OUTLET AND JUST DO EVERYTHING ONLINE?
Hindsight 20/20 but you have to remember that when I started out, e-commerce wasn’t that commonplace yet in this country and I also didn’t have my own tea brands to sell. So, having a physical outlet made sense then. Of course, if I were to start a brand new tea business today, doing something purely online is certainly viable.
WHERE DO YOU SOURCE FOR THE DIFFERENT TEAS THAT YOU SELL ONLINE?
I attend trade fairs, where I get to meet different tea suppliers. Tasting the various blends is the best way to decide what to carry. I trust my taste! But it’s better to have a group of tasters to give you feedback. Right now, I import tea from various countries, including China, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, Germany and Brazil.
AS A TEA CONNOISSEUR, DO YOU READ VORACIOUSLY ABOUT THE TEA BUSINESS?
I don’t consider myself a tea connoisseur, just a tea aficionado. I read tea journals quite a bit to keep myself informed and updated on tea and social media channels like Instagram make it easy to connect with other tea fans from around the globe. I have about 10 books on tea but 99 per cent of my research is done online.
WHAT WOULD BE A FASCINATING TEA FOR SOMEONE WHO LIKES TO BE SURPRISED?
You don’t have to enjoy tea in its pure leaf form but can have it as an infusion with natural flavourings like our Tiramisu Topaz, which is like a dessert in a cup without the calories.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE TAIWAN BUBBLE TEA PHENOMENON? There are versions of Taiwanese Bubble Tea made with real tea and those can be rather refreshing. I’d consider those to be variations of iced tea. But I’m not a fan of their non-tea versions like fruit or dairy-flavoured drinks.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE TEA?
My favourite continually changes as I discover new ones. Currently, I enjoy pure Honeybush tea from South Africa. This is a caffeine-free, herbal tea similar to rooibos but with a sweeter aroma and taste. This might be a future offering at The Tea Republic!
I finally got around to trying out this teeny tiny tea sample from @the_tea_republic. This is one of the items in @CubeCrate‘s January CNY box that I was really looking forward to trying. Judging from the scent and texture of the leaves, I’m guessing they’ve sent me an Imperial Bliss loose tea leaves, which is sold on their website for RM49 for 40g in a metal canister. Expensive, high-end tea for you fancy tea-connoisseurs.
It’s filed under relaxing tea and is made from lemongrass and ginger blended together with pu-erh tea from China’s Yunnan Province. Such fancy tea. Seeing as the ingredients, lemongrass and ginger, are both good for fighting period cramps, I brewed this to drink while I was having my period. The Theine (caffeine) level for this tea is labelled as high, so probably not the kind of tea to drink at night if you’re sensitive to caffeine. 🙂 The brewing guide says to infuse the leaves in freshly boiled water for 3-5 minutes so I just tossed the leaves in a cup of boiling water and then went to take a shower.
I made 2 cups of tea with this, though I would suggest making only one since dividing it to two ended up diluting the taste so much The lemongrass and ginger flavor were also quite faint. The sample batch that I received had only a few tea leaves with majority being lemongrass and gingle chunks, which was fine for me since I enjoy the slightly spicy taste of ginger in my tea. ^^ I’m just the slightest disappointed by the lack of pu’erh taste in the tea, since I’m a fan of pu’erh. That’s probably on me though, since I tried to make this last and made two cups instead of one. XD Bigger sample sizes please? 😛
They have such interesting tea available on their site and what caught my eye was their coral sunseet, which is made from peach essence, apple, mango and papaya pieces, hibiscus and sunflower petals. So fancy~ Their cafe is in Bangsar Shopping Centre for you tea lovers in KL.