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Back to school for British tea-drinkers.

Market analysts seem agreed that tea and coffee are now running more or less neck and neck in the British beverage popularity stakes, with the major companies way out ahead of the field. But in London's fashionable Chelsea, Richard Clark found a long-established company which is expanding by educating its customers in the finer points of tea drinking.

At first sight, the idea of teaching the English to appreciate tea looks like an exercise in pure futility. It slots neatly into the same category as encouraging the Italians to eat pasta, getting French chefs to use garlic, or passing on your recipe for chicken soup to a traditional Jewish momma.

The word is ... superfluous.

Nevertheless, this is precisely how Giles Hilton, product director of the venerable London tea and coffee specialists Whittard of Chelsea cheerfully describes his chosen mission in life. "The English-bless them! -have no real knowledge of teas," he explains. "If it's strong and brown, they'll drink it. In fact, they've a lot to learn from the Continentals."

Before the protests start flooding in, it should perhaps be explained that this robust attitude has paid impressive commercial dividends. Whittards has expanded its activities rapidly over the past three years, and it now has 16 outlets throughout southern England, including five in London; in fact, two new branches were opened in a single week recently, including one in Stratford-upon-Avon.

It must also be acknowledged that the major part of the British market is dominated by sman-leaf teas, which are largely used to fill the nation's teabags. Most of Whittard's trade, on the other hand, is in loose or boxed teas, and their own teabags, a small part of their turnover, are filled with large-leaf varieties.

The company concerned itself more or less exclusively with the tea trade, wholesale and retail, when it was founded in 1886, with premises in Mincing Lane, still one of the City of London's best-known commodity trading centers. It expanded into coffee round about the turn of the century. There it remained until World War II, when both the Mincing Lane premises and the warehouse in Mansell Street were destroyed in an air raid. In 1940, they reestablished themselves in the Fulham Road, and their flagship store is still there.

What sort of customers do they attract? "Mixed, as you'd expect, but the apartments around here are exceptionally expensive these days, so there are a great many well-paid business people among our clientele. Mind you, we also get some wonderful old ladies still living in rent-controlled flats, who specify a particular type of tea for different times of the day. Those prosperous businessmen include a number on assignment to London from U.S. organizations, and Hilton reports that many of them continue to order their teas from Whittards by mail when they return home.

Certainly though, the company's success can't be put down to vigorous price-cutting. There are no loss-leaders in any of the Whittard outlets, and in fact at $1.78 to the E, their most breath-taking Darjeeling Longview Estate first flush works out at just short of $40 a loose-leaf pound. The Formosa Oolong Peach Blossom from Taiwan carries the same price tag, but if these two exquisites are beyond your bankroll, there are always the rather cheaper first grade Kenilworth Estate Ceylon Special Orange Pekoes at a mere $25 a lb.

"Well, remembering that we always sell the best flowery and tippy teas, they're still relatively economical because the large leaves mean that you don't use too much." And with a menu of some 80 varieties in the stock range, Hilton points out that there are plenty of more modestly-priced but still exceptional teas for the customers to choose from.

In fact, the company buys its teas mainly at either the London auctions or directly from the estates, and stores them in their original chests until they are needed. It is significant, too, that Whittards has happy relationships with the Hamburg tea trade-another indication of Continental Europe's more fastitious tastes in tea. "Hamburg is especially good for the better large-leaf Assams and Darfeelings," said Hilton.

However, although the company stresses the individual origin of teas, there is continuing demand for blends, and one of the favorites with the customer is the Pelham Blend, compounded of China teas flavored with bergamot and jasmine by Dick Whittard, who taught Giles Hilton the finer points of the business. As always, the classic Earl Grey remains overwhelmingly popular and the Whittard blend includes a black China Keemun which Hilton praises highly.

Like so many people who become involved with either the tea or coffee trades, Giles Hilton "more or less drifted into the business." He started out as an accountant, with the Chelsea company as one of his clients, and 17 years ago he decided to devote all his time to Whittards. "Mr. Whittard was a great enthusiast, and a great teacher," he recalls happily.

Of course, the company does not confine itself to teas, and its outlets stock a range of very good coffees, in addition to the chocolates and other table goodies the customers require. There are 18 coffees on the catalog, although it does not include any of the more astronomically priced origins. But it does all its own roasting every day using a 200 lb Probat and, more or less inevitably in Britain, two old Witmee models still maintained these days by the legendary Les Tate, who is willing to make up the spare parts when necessary.

In addition to sales from the Chelsea store and all its outposts, Whittards still run the active mail order business which was originally established in the 30's. "We send off 10,000 orders a day to our British customers," says Hilton.

Because the company sees one of its prime functions as educating a wider public, it expects its store staff to be able to discuss both teas and coffees knowledgeably with customers. Accordingly, all new staff begin their careers by working in one of the older establishments, after first attending one of the weekly training courses which the company runs.
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Title Annotation:Whittard of Chelsea
Author:Clark, Richard
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:1015
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