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Taipei’s oldest tea shop thrives on honesty
Lin Hua Tai Tea Co. is Taipei’s oldest tea wholesaler and retailer. (Staff photos/Audrey Wang)
* Publication Date：10/14/2010
* Source： Taiwan Today
* By Audrey Wang
Taipei’s oldest tea shop, the 131-year-old Lin Hua Tai Tea Co., has never changed the way it does business with tea farmers and customers.
Sixty-four-year-old Lin Mao-sen, the fourth generation owner, described his business as “a very traditional one.” Just as in the old days, the shop follows a routine of buying, roasting, sorting and selling tea leaves. He never really considered adopting new marketing strategies in the face of intense competition from ready-to-drink bottled teas and changes in the drinking habits of the younger generation, for his sales have barely been affected by these trends, he said.
In 1879, Lin’s great grandfather, originally a tea farmer, began the family business of processing and selling tea leaves in Taipei County. Before long, the store was relocated to its current location in the Dadaocheng area of Taipei City.
Tea leaves purchased from farmers are already processed and ready to infuse, but to give the shop’s teas a deeper and more sophisticated flavor, Lin said, his family goes the extra mile with an additional roasting process. “This practice, getting rid of extra moisture in the tea leaves, keeps the dry leaves fresh longer and ensures a more consistent tea quality,” Lin said.
When he was a child, tea leaves were roasted on large bamboo trays over burning charcoal for two straight weeks, Lin said. Back then, the Lins often hired as many as 10 helpers in their busiest seasons and those in charge of this process had to get up every two hours in the middle of the night to toss the leaves on the trays to prevent localized overroasting.
Today, machines have replaced most of the labor; only two people are needed to operate a giant tea-roasting machine, with a few more helping hands afterward to spread the hot tea leaves on the floor to cool before being sorted, Lin said.
His 660-square-meter shop still preserves its old wooden window frames and compartments. The spacious outlet houses 50 large tin barrels, holding dozens of varieties of tea in different grades, including the well-known tieguanyin, regular oolong and white-tip oolong, a special type of oolong produced only in Taiwan.
On each container, red paint marks the name and price of the tea, ranging from NT$133 (US$4.24) to NT$6,667 per kilogram. Lin said he insists on the visible price labels to prevent customers who cannot tell tea quality by observation from feeling they are being cheated. “Price is determined solely by quality,” Lin explained, noting that customers always get what they pay for and there is no difference between wholesale and retail prices in his store.
According to Lin, the shop’s patrons have come from all corners of the world, and throughout Taiwan. Because their price tags are so visible in the store, however, there is very little room for travel agents to charge under-the-table sales commissions, so there are very few tourist groups.
Lin hua taiLin Mao-sen showcases the finest variety of tieguanyin, also the most expensive tea leaves in his store.
Lin said over the years he has turned down all offers from travel agencies to bring in tourists in exchange for sale commissions. He does not want to overcharge the end-customer by manipulating prices in the store and risk tarnishing his business reputation.
“Relationships with customers must be based on good old-fashioned trust,” he said. “Trust is something that needs to be cultivated for a long time, but once it is in place, customers will naturally keep coming back.”
Lin learned his business philosophy from his father, who considered honesty the most important value in business. In 1964, when a flood ruined all the tea leaves they had in store, Lin’s father immediately decided to discard the entire inventory, although it amounted to the worst loss in the history of their business.