Blue Monkey Tea Pittsburgh  is in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7/11/2021
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

11 July 2021

Emma Skid­more: es­kid­

Jack Myer/Post-Gazette pho­tos

Link to Article at Post-Gazette

‘It’s ba­si­cally af­fect­ing ev­ery­thing’

From work­ers to har­vest to sup­ply chains, COVID-19 leaves tea in­dus­try strug­gling

Unique and rare teas line the shelves at Blue Mon­key Tea in Squir­rel Hill on June 30. Ship­ping dif­fi­cul­ties have af­fected tea sales na­tion­wide. [Photo Above]

Mar­garet Har­ris has stock­piled $ 50,000 worth of tea in her base­ment. Ms. Har­ris, owner of Blue Mon­key Tea Co. in Squir­rel Hill, has been in the tea busi­ness for 20 years. In March 2020, as the pan­demic hit, she re­al­ized there were go­ing to be sup­ply chain is­sues. She re­lies on ship­ments from places like China, where COVID-19 was quickly dis­rupt­ing busi­ness as usual.

“I had to take a loan from the banks, and I or­dered ex­tra stash of teas,” she re­called. “We could barely move in our stor­age room be­cause we had so much stuff.”

Like so many busi­nesses, tea sell­ers — who source their prod­ucts from around the globe— have had to ma­neu­ver to cope with the pan­demic. Some, like Blue Mon­key Tea, have cho­sen to stock up, while others, like Fuku Tea in Oak­land, de­cided their best bet is to wait it out.

Fuku Tea has a sign posted that in­forms cus­tomers about the short­age of boba — those jelly-like pearls made of tapi­oca that sit at the bot­tom of a bub­ble tea drink — and lim­its them to only one top­ping per drink. Top­pings of­fered in­clude tra­di­tional boba, pop­ping boba, red bean and pud­ding.

“We’re not get­ting the same sup­ply,” said Han­nah Ku, a se­nior team mem­ber who said most of Fuku Tea’s ship­ments come from Tai­wan. “We’re ask­ing for X amount of our tapi­oca or an­other top­ping, but we’re only get­ting way less than what we ac­tu­ally need.”

Right now, a 16-ounce bub­ble tea costs $3.65, and a large 24-ounce is $4.40. One top­ping is in­cluded in the price, but pre-short­age, it would run a cus­tomer an ex­tra 50 cents per ad­di­tional top­ping.

Holdups at ports

The chal­lenges for the tea in­dus­try are com­ing from more than one di­rec­tion.

A re­cent surge in ship­ping con­tainer costs has caused headaches for many in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing the tea busi­ness, said Peter Goggi, pres­i­dent of the Tea As­so­ci­a­tion of the U.S.A., a New York-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents up­ward of 100 cor­po­ra­tions.

“A typ­i­cal 40-foot con­tainer out of China, which would have cost about $3,000 a few months back, is now up to $13,000,” he said.

A 40-foot ship­ping con­tainer can hold more than 2,000 cu­bic feet of vol­ume, ac­cord­ing to iCon­tain­ers, a sup­ply chain-track­ing plat­form head­quar­tered in Barcelona,

Spain. If these con­tain­ers are not filled or shipped, sup­pli­ers are miss­ing out on a whole lot of tea.

Be­cause of a lack of work­ers as a re­sult of COVID-19, Mr. Goggi said there was a slow­down in the un­load­ing and load­ing pro­cesses of large port groups like Los An­ge­les and New York.

As the globe now tran­si­tions out of a pan­demic-cen­tered world, there is a buildup of de­mand for con­tain­ers, es­pe­cially in Asia.

“Ship­ping ves­sels and ship­ping lines are ab­so­lutely try­ing to get as many empty con­tain­ers out to these

Asian ports for ex­ports around the world [as they can],” he said. “In many in­stances, they’re re­fus­ing to take cargo from other countries. In the U.S., there’s been a lot of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between var­i­ous in­dus­tries and the Fed­eral Mar­itime Com­mis­sion about the fact that it’s im­pact­ing our abil­ity to ex­port agri­cul­tural prod­ucts.”

The U.S. is the third-largest tea im­porter world­wide, be­hind Pak­istan and Rus­sia, ac­cord­ing to a 2019-20 re­port by the Tea As­so­ci­a­tion of the U.S.A. How­ever, the U.S. is also the only West­ern coun­try to grow in tea im­ports, as well as tea con­sump­tion.

Back in Squir­rel Hill, Ms. Har­ris is ex­pect­ing a big hike in whole­sale tea prices soon due to the lack of ship­ping con­tain­ers. She pre­dicts a 15% to 20% in­crease in ship­ping costs, but she doesn’t think it will af­fect the price of the tea at her shop very much be­cause lo­cal ship­ping prices are the same.

“We don’t see an in­crease in our ship­ping costs yet lo­cally, be­cause the is­sue is not lo­cal shipment,” she said. “FedEx [and] UPS are still good. The prob­lem is for my whole­salers to get shipment on those con­tain­ers.”

Still, Ms. Har­ris said, Blue Mon­key in­creased prices an ad­di­tional 10% a few weeks ago­ for the first time in years.

One thing help­ing to keep prices from go­ing still higher is the wide range of other busi­ness and sup­ply av­enues. Ms. Har­ris said African-grown tea crops in places such as Kenya and Malawi have been largely un­af­fected.

Blue Mon­key Tea has also started its own whole­sale busi­ness, sup­ply­ing other re­tail­ers with lo­cally made beers that in­cor­po­rate their tea. “If there’s no tea, I’ll sell some­thing else,” she said.

Sup­ply short­ages

Melissa Un­der­wood, man­ager of Blue Mon­key Tea, over­sees herbs for her­bal teas and said she had to go through mul­ti­ple dis­trib­u­tors to get spe­cific prod­ucts due to a lack of peo­ple work­ing crops over­seas.

“It was re­ally bad for many months,” she said. “Now I would say it’s much bet­ter. It’s not back to nor­mal, but it’s much bet­ter.”

Ms. Har­ris said many herbs come from Balkan coun­tries such as Bul­garia and Ro­ma­nia, while Ms. Un­der­wood noted chamomile comes from Egypt.

Be­cause cer­tain in­gre­di­ents are lack­ing or un­avail­able all to­gether, cer­tain tea blends can­not be made.

Chai blends are largely made up of black tea, car­damom, cin­na­mon, cloves and the main com­po­nent — gin­ger. With a short­age of gin­ger — a bad har­vest didn’t help — com­ing out of Thai­land, Ms. Har­ris said there is no way to make chai.

Tea as a hobby

The short­ages hit as de­mand for tea has in­creased dur­ing the pan­demic.

“Tea is such a com­fort mea­sure,” Ms. Har­ris said. “Not only were they drink­ing tea be­cause it was pleas­ant and some­thing to do, but they de­velop a hobby now. We cre­ated so many new tea drinkers be­cause of this pan­demic sit­u­a­tion.”

That in­cluded a spike in sales for im­mu­nity-boost­ing teas — Blue Mon­key Tea fea­tures teas such as Flu Fighter and herbs that help with coughs.

Tea was sec­ond to wa­ter as the most con­sumed drink in the world from 2019-20, ac­cord­ing to the Tea As­so­ci­a­tion of the U.S.A.

Ms. Har­ris teaches her own class on how to grow tea, and she high­lighted the Great Mis­sis­sippi Tea Co. as an ex­am­ple of places pro­duc­ing more do­mes­tic tea crops. Lo­cated in Brookhaven, Miss., the Great Mis­sis­sippi Tea Co. was just one of 60 tea farms in the na­tion in 2017.

“Tea is so amaz­ing, so in­ter­est­ing, be­cause you can learn his­tory, ge­og­ra­phy, lan­guage, cul­ture [and] cus­toms,” she said. “If you know how to drink tea, if you can train your body, you can become a real tea con­nois­seur.”

Fewer em­ploy­ees

The qual­ity of tea avail­able has been af­fected by a lack of em­ploy­ees pick­ing crops over­seas, ac­cord­ing to Ms. Har­ris. When tea leaves are first picked af­ter their dor­mancy pe­riod, it is known as the first flush — the most valu­able round of har­vest­ing.

“Most teas in the world will sleep in win­ter, de­pend­ing on how far they are from the equa­tor,” she said. “Af­ter they wake up, there’s a lot of nu­tri­ents ac­cu­mu­lated in branches that are be­ing pumped to these fresh leaves. So these are the most pre­cious, the best teas.”

When COVID-19 surged in In­dia in the spring last year, many peo­ple had to stay in iso­la­tion. That meant the first flush leaves couldn’t be picked. The Dar­jeel­ing first flush in the Dar­jeel­ing district in In­dia, Ms. Har­ris said, was di­min­ished.

By com­par­i­son, tea com­ing from Sri Lanka has been rel­a­tively un­af­fected be­cause itis grown all year long.

The global work­force short­ages slammed ev­ery­one from tea pick­ers to whole­salers. There are fewer buy­ers go­ing over­seas to taste and pur­chase teas as well, she said.

“Tea is one thing you can’t re­ally as­sess vir­tu­ally,” she said. “You have to be there. You have to smell it’ you have to taste it be­fore they buy a big batch.”

What about bub­ble tea?

The short­ages have ex­tended to boba and bub­ble tea. Bub­ble tea orig­i­nated in Tai­wan and be­gan to gain pop­u­lar­ity in the U.S. in the 2000s. In Oak­land alone, there are seven busi­nesses that serve bub­ble tea.

Si­hyuk Choi, owner of Chick’n Bub­bly in Oak­land, said col­lege stu­dents are a large part of his cus­tomer base. Mr. Choi’s menu is a com­bi­na­tion of bub­ble tea and chick­en ­bites.

He said the in­dus­try is un­sta­ble right now, as his ship­ments of boba come from Tai­wan. In­creased pro­duc­tion in the United States would help to sta­bi­lize it, in his view.

The costs of boba ship­ments have in­creased about 10% since the pan­demic be­gan, he said, and the cost of chicken has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly, too.

“The chicken wings was $80 per case or some­thing, now it is $130 or $140,” Mr. Choi­ said.

Ed­ward Lui, a part­ner at Bae Bae’s Kitchen, Down­town, said he first started to hear about the boba short­age at the end of March.

“My mom al­ways watches the news over­seas, and she in­formed us about it,” he said. “They were re­port­ing about it over­seas a cou­ple months ago.”

He or­ders boba by the case about once a week, cost­ing about $60 to $70. This is about a 15% in­crease from his prepan­demic prices, he said. About six 10-pound bags come in a case.

But food costs have risen across the board. “With the whole food sup­ply process, there’s a lot of change go­ing on in the in­dus­try,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple have left the in­dus­try; some peo­ple are ex­ploring other op­tions.”

Mr. Lui thinks the gen­eral goal of the food in­dus­try is to place more em­pha­sis on do­mes­tic farm-to-ta­ble sup­ply chains, and con­sumers are more ­aware of the process.

“I think that’s al­ways go­ing to be a goal in the food in­dus­try,” he said. “But there’s also the big­ger cor­po­ra­tions that are tak­ing things over­seas and what­not. There’s al­ways that bal­ance and bat­tle between those two worlds.”

Mr. Goggi said bub­ble tea is a very small per­cent­age of im­port­s to the tea in­dus­try.

“Those peo­ple who have some in­ven­tory will be sell­ing it, prob­a­bly at a pre­mium,” he said. “Like most things, give it three to six months and the sup­ply chain should prob­a­bly set­tle down and get more into are ­place­ment mode.”

--- Emma Skid­more: es­kid­