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Love, scholarship and tea on the Left Bank.

One young but thriving Parisian specialty store has something about it that sets it apart from the usual stock and trade in gourmet product retailing. This is Le Palais des Thes, now operating two stores in the general vicinity of Montparnasse--a third store opened last year in Tokyo.

Firstly, the Paris stores are chiefly conspicuous for their lack of conspicuousness. The store on the rue Raymond Losserand, where the company's tiny offices are located on the floor above, is a simple workaday storefront. The street is not elegant, certainly it is not one of Paris' beauties, but it does have a good volume of traffic. The store has visibility without even a hint of luxury. The innocent by-stander could never guess that it is one of the great French banks for fine tea.

The interior is a single display room, crowded to the ceiling with tea canisters. Here and there are a few fine pots and a stack of books on tea. The interior effect is nonchalant, a somber Orientalism that feels like Indochina in the 1930's, Jesuits gone native. But all that one is really aware of is the tea. And, too, that one has just been given a very friendly welcome (in Paris!) and been handed a complimentary cup of steaming tea (Oolong, Tieh Kuan Yin). The atmosphere here is enjoy hour tea, talk about it if you wish, buy or browse as you wish, no matter, just be at peace with the |friends of tea.'

Perhaps the shop is purposefully kept small in order to ensure snugness, warmth, familiarity with the tea and, too, so that there isn't a spare inch left for snobbishness.

The formula of reception, including the all important offer of a cup of tea, is enshrined at Le Palais des Thes, as are the quick but tactful probings by the young man behind the counter from which he ascertains if you are a tea adept or novice--if new to tea, he'll gladly offer a little guidance and, if he learns this is your first visit to the store, you will also promptly be shown a copy of the house pamphlet), a 50-page booklet that actually manages to be remarkably informative and never pretentious as well as the list of available teas and their prices.

There is something else quite distinctive about Le Palais des Thes. According to my counting, the most recent price list runs to 303 tea entries (there are about 50 more if you are knowledgeable enough to ask for them). An overwhelming wealth of bulk teas, with nary a teabag in sight--not one--which in fact by itself places Le Palais des Thes in the ranks of those establishments where nobleness of purpose verges on eccentricity, and which might have once become more than borderline if it hadn't been for the continuous and reassuring ping of the cash register. Face it, Parisians love it! Le Palais des Thes has been a resounding and surprising success.

|Surprising' only until you meet Francois-Xavier Delmas, the president of the company. The young man obviously has the requisite business/marketing sense to make a |go' of the store's quixotic idolatry of a vast array of fine bulk teas. Delmas has officially been in charge for the past 18 months or so, but has actually been quite centrally involved with Le Palais des Thes since its inception and opening of the first store five years ago. That too is a story to set the company aside as something special. Le Palais des Thes was created by a subscription of investment (small investments) from among 45 ardent tea enthusiasts (including Delmas), the kind of fanatics who swear "If we can't get the kind of teas we want in Paris, we'll go out and start up our own store!" And they did too.

The number of shareholders swelled at one point to 70, and the company began to drift like a Clipper with a great crew but no captain. The company was almost done in by too much rapid fine growth and diversification--at one point it ventured into coffees with a Le Palais des Cafes store, which was not a success and has been closed (Delmas attributes the failure to the keen existing competition for Paris' specialty store coffee market and even more to the fact that the company wasn't really ready to serve two goods, tea held sway above all).

Thankfully for Le Palais des Thes, a captain has taken charge and the other projects have behaved handsomely. First, the company quickly outgrew its reliance on the half-dozen French tea importers and created its own importing business; then, through success and word of mouth, other specialty stores began to ask for their teas, and so a wholesale operation sprang up that now accounts for more than 15% of turnover; from this Le Palais des Thes quickly developed into mail order sales for all of France, and then into exports to Japan. Today, the two Paris stores actually account for less than 40% of company sales, while retail order turnover is brisk and exports to Japan are amounting to 15% of business.

Based on these strength, and the grand success of the Tokyo store, the company has been stabilized. The number of shareholding |friends' is reduced to 65, and Delmas himself holds 70% of the company.

The next step for the company is veiled in secrecy, but the hint is that it will involve the opening of a third Parisian location, and on the Right Bank--horror of horrors! Will going upper class spoil Le Palais des Thes? Probably not, from the look in Delmas' eye, but it will certainly make it less unusual With Le Palais des Thes just exactly as it is--that classic Left Bank blend of love and scholarship--one has a find.
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Title Annotation:Le Palais des Thes in Paris
Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Previous Article:France's coffee for the rich and famous.
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