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.

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