Fonterra taps into cheese-tea fad
To Western tastes it may seem a wacky idea, but a ‘‘tea macchiato’’ with a cream and cream cheese topping invented by a young Chinese entrepreneur has earned him millions since he launched his first store in 2012.
And partly thanks to the success of the craze, Fonterra is now building two new cream cheese plants at Darfield, Canterbury at a cost of $150 million.
Sophisticated, moneyed young Chinese do not mind queuing for up to an hour in upmarket shopping centres for the chance to experience the tea at a Hey Tea store, which has spawned numerous imitators.
It’s a far cry from the traditional tea houses their parents and grandparents once patronised.
Jessica and her three friends have been standing in line for half an hour but they don’t mind; it’s a chance to catch up at the end of the day on the latest gossip before they head home. At least they have managed to order, unlike the people patiently waiting in the line that snakes back around the corner.
A burly staff member is on hand to avoid a riot, although the mood is good natured and patient. Nevertheless scuffles have been known to break out when people have tried to jump the queue.
‘‘We come here a lot, we really like the combination of the creamy cheese and tea,’’ she says.
Founder Yunchen Nie is only 26. He is the face of the new China – young, entrepreneurial and willing to take a gamble. As a 19-year-old, his first venture into business was a failure but inspired by the Starbucks brand, he decided to set up the equivalent based on tea.
When he first launched the concept in his hometown of Jiangmen in Guangdong province, Nie dubbed it Royal Tea, but changed it to Hey Tea, partly because of the translation meaning ‘‘happy tea’’.
Before he opened the store, he knew the key would be the topping. Chinese associate tea with cheese and mango, so he experimented with both but the mango proved to be a dud. On the other hand, people enjoyed the combination of tea and cheese, the latter neutralising the bitterness of the tea with a smooth and sweet flavour.
Social media and clever promotion saw the phenomenon take off. There are now 88 stores in ‘‘tier 1’’ cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing.
Fonterra’s channel development director for foodservice, Angela Du, says Hey Tea is a key account for the dairy giant, and is one it collaborates with to develop its novel products.
‘‘They didn’t want to compete with Starbucks so they had to come up with something that would be attractive to the younger generation but at the same time would not be in competition with the global chains.’’
The store where she buys her tea is in the bottom level of Raffles House where Fonterra’s head office in Shanghai is situated. It makes about 4000 tea macchiatos a day.
Nie has developed a number of themed stores: the clean, white lines of this one in Raffles House are referred to as the ‘‘labs’’ for their resemblance to a science laboratory. There is a pink-themed store, designed to attract females, and a black model, targeting wealthy consumers.
Prices for the ‘‘smoothie topped with cheese’’ as Du describes it, range from $5.40 to $6.50. A Starbucks coffee will set you back about $7.20.
As a premium customer, Du was able to jump the queue but even then it took half an hour for the drinks to arrive. And were they worth it?
Before I taste, I’m instructed in the correct way to sup it.
‘‘You hold the cup at 45 degrees, it’s the best angle to ensure you drink the tea and taste the cheese topping at the same time. And don’t stir with the straw,’’ Du says.
It’s obviously an acquired taste, no matter how it’s imbibed, and one that may never be achieved for this particular consumer.
Gerard Hutching is this year’s NZ-China Council media award winner
A consumer in Beijing drings a tea macchiato, a mix of tea, topped off with cream and chream cheese.
Founder of the Chinese Hey Tea store chain, Yunchen Nie.