Order tea in many smart London restaurants these days and you will be offered a choice of gourmet options, often accompanied by a note on the supplier.
Henrietta Lovell, 41, isn’t just the face of Rare Tea: She is the company and hers is a remarkable story. She worked in corporate finance in the U.S., Europe and Asia. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after quitting her job and returning to London from New York to be with her ailing father.
“My father had so many plans for his retirement, but he died and I realized I had to crack on with what I wanted to do,” Lovell said in an interview. “The next year, I got back from China, having signed my first contract, and I was diagnosed with cancer three days later. Within a week, I was in chemotherapy.
“It’s very hard to sell tea with no hair and no eyelashes, so I changed my business plan just to sell online. It was quite an aggressive cancer and I had three years of treatment.”
An oncologist friend in the U.S. recommended she take the drug Herceptin, which wasn’t approved by her medical insurer. She and her partner raised 200,000 pounds ($300,000) for her treatment and her cancer has been in remission since 2007.
Lovell said she supplies Noma in Copenhagen and Momofuku in New York and has signed a contract for a new restaurant in Dubai. In London, her tea is sold at Gordon Ramsay, Hix, the Square and Murano among other restaurants.
She declined to give detailed sales figures, saying only that her revenue is less than 1 million pounds ($1.5 million). Lovell employs four staff and is moving the business out of her home. She travels around the world buying tea direct from farmers and arranging to ship their crop back to London.
“When I started, there was no market,” she said. “People didn’t drink quality tea and they didn’t want to pay more until they tried it. When you taste exquisite tea, it’s like a fine wine. A sommelier can sometimes by fooled by a cheaper wine: No one, from a tattoo artist to a chef, is fooled by cheap tea.”
Meanwhile, Jing counts among its customers Per Se (New York), Joel Robuchon (Tokyo), La Dame de Pic (Paris) and Marque (Sydney). It also supplies Dabbous, Dinner, the Ledbury and Sketch in London and the soon-to-open Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai.
The company was founded in 2004 by Edward Eisler, who studied Chinese and Chinese medicine at university in London. Eisler, 34, estimates he has visited China between 50 and 100 times. He started Jing (which means “essence” in Chinese) because he couldn’t find good tea in the U.K. at that time.
“I’m someone who was either stupid or arrogant enough to start up a business without giving it too much thought, though I did write a very detailed business plan,” Eisler said. “The point is that you just couldn’t do this without incredible passion. We travel around the world setting up the whole system for serving a perfect cup of tea every time.”
The Fat Duck has just begun a new service in which a customer can sample three different teas, Eisler said.
You won’t find Jing tea in supermarkets, he said, although he does sell online. The business is focused both on consumers and on the luxury hospitality business, restaurants and hotels. Eisler declined to give sales figures or to detail the relative importance of the different elements of the business.
The new kid on the block is Lalani, which was founded in 2010 by three brothers: Nadeem and AK, both 24 years old, and Jameel, 26. Their parents moved to the U.K. in the early 1970s from Kenya and Uganda, where their uncle owned tea estates.
Restaurants the company supplies include Hibiscus, the Hand & Flowers (each holds two Michelin stars) and Trishna, which has one star. At Coya and Gauthier, Lalani has developed tea pairing menus that are a first in London, Nadeem said in an interview.
“With the level of focus we have, we can push the boundaries with things like tea-pairing,” he said. “We engage with restaurateurs and sommeliers, sharing our world. We call it contemporary British tea culture.
“We’re not a brand. We see ourselves as curators. We team up with the small, artisan, family-run gardens and we introduce chefs to the people who make the tea. We disclose every detail of the provenance, down to the day the leaves were picked. Garden to glass is our farm-to-fork phrase.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.