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Ashby's give teas a holiday flavor.

Ashby's give teas a holiday flavor

In its campaign to establish itself as a prime supplier in the middle ranks of the British tea market, Pauling UK is aiming at the tea quality trade with the revamped Ashbys tea range. Richard Clark reports.

It's difficult to identify the precise moment when tea first began to lose its effortless grip on the British gullet, but it probably coincided with the first mass tourist invasions of the Mediterranean coast in the `60's. Still ill at ease away from their old familair haunts, hundreds upon thousands of sunburnt Britons found reassurance in cafes which promised "Tea Just Like Mother Makes!" The brews on offer were mostly a grievous libel on British motherhood, so in time the holidaymakers began to experiment timidly with coffee, as part of the Foreign Experience.

Nowadays, the Island Race is totally at ease with most foods and drinks, to the point that there are many who honestly believe that spaghetti, paella and even deep-fried squid are ethnic British dishes. And coffee--even if it is mostly in instant form--is firmly established on the national menu. Not surprisingly, this was a period when a great many familair brand names vanished from the grocery store shelves: Five Roses, Mazawattee, even Liptons, all gone.

Ashbys very nearly found itself added to that doleful list a few years back when, after over a century of successful trading, the company seemed to be headed for the breaker's yard. But steaming to the rescue from Helsinki came the Finnish food-spice-and-beverage giant, Gustav Pauling, which had just salvaged the even older British coffee firm Appleton, Machin & Smiles. With a single European market promised for 1992, Pauling needed to establish itself within the European Community (Finland isn't a member of the EEC), and the two British companies provided an ideal vehicle.

Paulig injected fresh capital and new management, and set about modernizing the two operations. The coffee division benefitted from the parent company's unrivalled experience in processing and marketing high-quality coffees, as well as Pauling's huge purchasing power in the international coffee market. Ashbys, likewise, benefitted from a massive improvement in premises and plant at its headquarters in the strategically-placed "new town" of Milton Keynes.

In return, Pauling also hoped to benefit from Ashbys long experience in the trade when it came to developing its own, domestic tea sales, now standing at about 20 percent of the Finnish tea market. Recently, in fact, the Milton Keynes plant took over packaging a major range of fruit and flavored teas which Pauling is relaunching in its home market. In spite of the company connection, incidentally, the British outfit won the contract in open competition with other packers.

The tea link is, as it happens, an interesting example of the "English" image of many top Continental teas--still very much a factor in marketing strategies, because the English originally set the standards for many of the top European blends. Appropriately, it has been this "quality" ideal that Paulig have decided to pursue in rebuilding the Ashby name in Britain.

The company has positioned itself firmly as a medium sized but high quality supplier of specialist teas to the British market, a sector growing at some 11 percent a year, and ultimately worth around $130 million yearly. According to managing director George Docker, Ashby is aiming for a + 2 percent share of that and he believes fervently that quality is the only key to securing a proper slice of that demanding sector, and even, perhaps, helping to halt the long, slow decline in tea consumption. Yes, but does the policy pay?

Yes it does, beams George Docker, and as evidence he cites one of the company's most considerable commercial coups: inclusion on the tea list of the vast Tesco supermarket chain. Apart from the fact Tesco is the dominant force in British retailing these days, the chain is also in the process of repositioning its product line, from the old "pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap" approach to an altogether more sophisticated slection, inkeeping with higher disposable incomes and a much more discriminating public.

"If I had to identify one peak spot for this year, then that would have to be it," says Docker. "That, and our inclusion in the big Booker chain of cash-and-carry stores which supply thousands of grocery stores. I know that with tea prices rising so sharply, some packers might have been tempted to cut back on quality, but we've been determined to maintain our standards. People have shown that they're prepared to pay that little bit extra for genuinely better quality."

Not that the price factor can be ignored. "No, the tea market is very price-sensitive, and in the past three months or so the prices of some categories have risen by 50 percent at the London Tea Auctions. Good quality is at a premium, especially when you take into consideration factors like the communal violence in Sri Lanka, and the increase in local consumption in India."

One of the company's responses to the challenge has been to streamline its national distribution system, to ensure that its catering and retail customers get their supplies with minimal delay. Apart from up-dating the old James Ashby plant at Milton Keynes, Paulig also established a new 27,000 sq ft warehouse to handle dispatching of all Paulig products. This is also situated at Milton Keynes, an enterprise center for some of Britain's most successful new hi-tech industries, that's well served by both the rail network and the motorway system.

Out in the marketplace, though, it's the products which count, and this year Paulig have responded to what George Docker concedes was a fairly unexciting 1988 by launching new and imaginatively packaged specialty teas. "Last year was a pretty quiet one for the British tea market, and especially the specialty market," he explains. But this year has seen one of the best summers Britain has enjoyed in years, and although this should have given the carbonated drinks an extra edge, the great health factor has, in fact, encouraged consumers to substitute the classier types of tea.

"We're offering people the right moment," says Docker. The teas in question include all the old favorites--English Breakfast blend, Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, Lapsang Souchong and the eternal Earl Grey, all available in 125g loose tea cartons and tagged tea bags. Alongside these stands Ashbys Choice, a premium-quality blend of India, Sri Lanka and Kenya leaf.

The British catering trade's response to the challenge of the colas and their great rearguard or carbonated soft drinks has, at times, bordered on the lethargic, and with few and honorable exceptions the incoming tourist hasn't usually been seduced into switching beverages by the quality of hotel, restaurant or snack-bar teas, and some take-our outlets serve a brew that can strip the enamel from your teeth.

Accordingly, this is a sector which Ashbys targeted energetically, just ahead of this year's tourist season, with new specialty tea dispensers in modular units designed to blend with existing displays. Again, the Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam and English Breakfast teas were supplied to high specification. Caterers reported a high degree of customer satisfaction and, in time, it might just be possible to reverse the trend to coffee which the Continental holiday resorts began, by persuading folk from coffee culture countries to take the tea habit home with them.

Who knows, it might even help to re-convert the British to their old allegiance to the fragrant leaf.

Civil Servants Gain Reprieve!

Earlier this year the British Civil Service--which is traditionally fuelled by endless cups of tea--lost the last of its famous tea trolley ladies. (See Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, May 1989)

Now, however, the situation has been somewhat retrieved, because Ashbys range of Three Star catering teas have been awarded the contract to supply the entire Civil Service establishment with the essential beverage. The contract was won on a combination of both price and quality, and it will be served in the most elevated of Governmental circles.

This means, of course, that when Britain's redoubtable Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is engaged in one of her periodic tussles with her colleagues, the atmosphere in the Cabinet Office will be restored to equanimity with cups of Ashbys finest blend.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Ashby's Ltd.
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1989
Words:1367
Previous Article:A question of quality and innovation.
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