Argo Tea aims to follow Starbucks into Lebanon

BEIRUT: The furnishings are both soft and hard, high and low; a glass-fronted fridge displays prepackaged sandwiches, salads and snacks; a menu above the counter shows images of the beverages on offer.

Branded mugs and other paraphernalia fill a shelving unit; office workers desperately clutch paper takeout cups, while other patrons hunch before their laptop screens, ice cubes clinking each time they slurp on their specialty drink.Yes, the tried and tested coffee-shop formula has struck again – but this time it’s touting tea.

“We want to do for tea what Starbucks did for coffee,” says Arsen Avakian, the 37-year-old entrepreneur behind Argo Tea who is in Beirut for the opening of the chain’s first outlet outside of the U.S.

“Beirut is the window to the Middle East,” Avakian continues, adding that the chain intends to move across the region, adding that he has ambitions to expand to Asia and Europe as well.

However, back in Chicago in 2003 when Avakian opened his first Argo Tea, he wasn’t focused on launching a global brand; rather, he says, he was simply taking the business “one cup at a time.”

He wanted to create a cafe that took “the second most consumed beverage in the world” – after water – and tore down the fusty image often associated with it in the U.S.

To do that Avakian became closely acquainted with his product. For two years he worked as a barista at his first cafe, sourcing teas and mixing them with a variety of international ingredients to create healthy, refreshing and often unexpected drinks.

Even now, with almost 30 outlets in the U.S., Avakian’s enthusiasm for his venture and product remains clearly visible on the first floor of Le Mall, Dabbayeh, as he selects menu items to sample and elaborates on how tea, the backbone of the business, has even found its way into his food products: For instance, a chai cherry chicken sandwich involves chicken cooked in the delicious spiced tea.

Even with over 40 blends of tea on offer and more than a dozen signature drinks, choosing from the Argo Tea menu isn’t quite the challenge procuring a Starbucks coffee was back before the world became accustomed to issuing a paragraph-long list of specifications for their beverage.

Nonetheless, tea options abound.

Do you want a black, green, red or white tea-based affair, low caffeine or high caffeine, with water or with milk, hot or cold, fruity or spicy, sweet or tart? Do you go for fresh brewed loose-leaf tea or for a signature drink?

Avakian chooses four iced samples from the latter selection: the Maté Laté, a comforting but, Avakian assures, energizing blend of Brazilian maté, almond and milk; the Hibiscus Tea Sangria, a mixture of iced tea and fresh fruits that’s only flaw is its lack of alcohol; the White Tea Acai Squeeze, a concoction of the Amazon basin berries, white tea and lemonade; and the Green Tea Ginger Twist, a zesty, refreshing cocktail.

But whatever you choose you can rest assured that its content is all-natural. Avakian points out that the chain has gained a foothold in hospitals, airports and on university campuses where there is growing demand for a healthy food and drink option. The proud owner also notes that Argo Tea was recently nominated for the best new food and beverage concept in the aviation sector.

While Argo Tea remains a long way from being as all pervasive as its coffee-selling counterpart, its central product has gained notable popularity in recent years. Avakian says tea is “the fastest growing beverage segment in the U.S. over the past 10 years.” But he is quick to highlight that Argo Tea sells a full range of fair-trade and organic coffees for those who will never abandon the rich, dark drink.

Breaking into the local market may prove easier though, he says, as a culture of tea drinking already exists.

Of course how readily the Middle East will embrace Argo Tea remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Avakian is eager to get started. For the company that started out saying one cup at a time, then one store at a time and one city at a time, Avakian is now saying “one country at a time.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 11, 2012, on page 2.




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