Qi Botanicals brews a fresh recipe for success

Written by Tuija Seipell

Imagine a cup of tea so perfect that you’ll forget all your troubles and just savor the experience. Sound impossible? Not according to tea aficionado Lana Sutherland. But then the entrepreneur is admittedly biased. She is the CEO of Qi Botanical Tea (Canada) Ltd., a Vancouver-based company that’s found a niche with customers who savor the quality, taste and presentation of the “tea experience.”

Producing quality tea is a creative endeavour, much like painting or sculpting, notes Sutherland. And while most companies re-package teas, Qi sources, blends and scents its own products. “It’s based on experience and passion, she says. We felt that tea had such a rich history and so much potential, and it was a lost art in North America.”

That love of tea founded the company in 1994; that’s when eight young friends who met in university would meet, drink tea and brainstorm for ideas to start a business together. They settled on tea largely because one of the group had family connections in the complex, Old-World business. The friends opened a trendy retail store offering a Japanese tearoom experience, tea tasting and educational tours, eventually expanding into the wholesale market.

Behind Qi Botanicals’ perfect cup, lies a strategy that focuses on mastering logistics, from tea transportation to storage, investing in R&D and providing personalized service to upscale hotels and restaurants worldwide. Clients include New York City’s Ritz Carlton and Hyatt Regency Madeleine in Paris.

Here’s how Qi found its recipe for success:

Sweat the details

To provide a true custom blend for each client, Qi needed fresh tea in hundreds of varieties, far more than the existing master-wholesaler-based system could provide. That meant bypassing traditional brokers and sourcing its teas and herbs-now more than 500 varieties-direct from growers around the world.

It also painstakingly controls the shipping, testing and warehousing of all of its teas to ensure quality. More than 50% of Qi is back-end logistics, says Garret Chan, director of strategy: “We need to know at all times exactly where every single type of tea is in the system, when it expires, who will be needing it and when.” To help manage the process, the company relies on sophisticated technology that tracks and manages every detail.

Grow cautiously

Qi has avoided growth for growth’s sake, has no debt and declined all offers of outside capital. This has kept control in-house-a crucial thing when your entire business rests on hard-earned trust, credibility and on delivering the highest-quality products.

“It has been very tempting at times to accept money or to jump into new ideas, but we have stayed firm,” says Sutherland “You have only one chance with reputation and we do not want to risk ours.”

Invest in R&D

Only a continuously changing variety and an exclusive selection of teas can provide a custom blend that is a perfect reflection of each client’s culinary concept. That means sourcing new growers and new tea varieties. The company’s eight owners are constantly in motion, says Chan, travelling, meeting clients and tasting teas. But the fine-tuning of blends comes from employing innovative in-house tea masters who are driven to invent or improve Qi’s custom blends.

Rather than relying on the quality certificates of growers or other third parties, the firm tests all of its teas in independent laboratories in Europe and Canada-an expensive process that ensures that Qi knows exactly what it is providing to the client.

Finally, Qi’s retail tearoom also serves as a tasting boutique, in which the company can test its new blends and get immediate consumer feedback.

Deliver “knock your socks off” service

Rather than give hotels a range of teas to choose from, Qi customizes a collection based on establishment’s culinary concept, brand and clientele. Providing that custom service can involve as many as 10 employees who meet with hotel staff, chefs and owners to understand the typical guest profile, before blending up to 35 exclusive varieties designed to be served in the lobby, restaurant or via room service.

“We try to be better every single time,” says Sutherland. “We look for better teas, better costs, better efficiencies for each client all the time. We are never done.”

© 2005 Tuija Seipell

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