Dethlefsen & Balk: Marcus Clausen, Jens Meier
Managing directors Marcus Clausen and Jens Meier
By Hans Niebergall
In 1836 Dethlefsen & Balk, known as D&B, started a small import business offering “all kinds of spices and tea” in the then small town of Hamburg, Germany. One hundred and eighty years later, STiR Tea & Coffee International sat down with the two managing directors Jens Meier and Marcus Clausen to discuss the tea business in the 21st century. D&B has grown to a global gourmet company selling to 80 countries not only tea, but also their own roasted coffee, delicacies, tea appliances, and tea cups and mugs. To better service the growing US market D&B opened an office there with 5 employees in 2004.
STiR: “What is the top challenge facing Germany’s tea industry today?”
D&B: To offer tea as a healthy, environmentally friendly, and inexpensive product. We show the young generation that tea is trendy and offers a very large variety.
STiR: Chain outlets that generate most of their sales from dry loose leaf tea are growing in number but the expansion of brands (Teavana, T2, DAVIDsTEA, Tee Gschwendner, etc.) is incremental – despite the considerable resources of Unilever and Starbucks. These chains are scaling at a far slower pace than coffee outlets like Costa Coffee, Coffee Day, Starbucks, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and Peet’s Coffee & Tea. What in your view is the obstacle preventing the rapid growth of retail tea outlets? (i.e. from the 5,000 today vs. the 50,000 seen in coffee).
D&B: In most western markets the consumption of loose leaf tea is much less than coffee. One of the reasons is that investors and corporations invested in setting up coffee shop chains more than 20 years ago. Today a number of these chains have reached their limit so that tea boutiques are getting more attractive financially. We also think that for the past 10 years there is more enthusiasm for loose leaf tea in North America.
STiR: “In Europe tea rooms (primary selling wet tea) prosper in even small villages. It is never difficult to find a good cup of tea. Why is that less true in North America despite the abundance of cafes and restaurants?”
D&B: We are not too familiar with the North American market. But we think that Europe has a much longer tradition with tea rooms and loose tea.
STiR: Describe the impact on sourcing in light of consumer demand for sustainable, organic, and fair trade tea?
D&B: In order to meet the demand of today’s consumer D&B invests much more in sourcing, audits and cost of labor, and other quality management programs than 20 years ago. We are much more driven towards the best quality than towards to highest quantity. We enjoy decades long close business contacts with our suppliers, who we visit on a regular basis. It is very important for us to follow the tea from the plant to the tea cup, which gives us the opportunity to make changes when necessary.
STiR: What has been the most significant obstacle for tea wholesalers in the past year or two?
D&B: We noticed that the tea connoisseur and the people who enjoy beautiful tea cups and accessories have changed their buying patterns due to the fact that the small and quaint tea shops are disappearing and are being replaced by chain stores in big shopping centers. Furthermore, the online business has been quite devastating for the small tea shops. We are working with the small tea shops integrating new and unique ideas.
STiR: Europe is the global trendsetter for blended teas with botanical and functional teas gaining widespread acceptance, what drives this demand? Affluence? Awareness of health benefits?
D&B: In order to reach more people to enjoy a cup of tea we have developed new convenient and easygoing tea bags. With these new larger bags people can truly enjoy larger tea leaves and herbs and spices. The new generation of tea bags give the tea lover the full fascination for tea.