Lifestyle report from Taiwan: What time is it? It's Chatime
CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau () - April 12, 2012 - 12:00am

As fast as fashion changes from season to season, Filipinos jump from one food fad to the next. One craze was coffee drinks, followed by fro-yo, and now we’ve circled back to pearl milk teas (remember Zagu?) in a wider, more mind-boggling array of flavors.

One brand, in particular, has no small ambitions. Chatime, the bubble milk tea chain from Taiwan, wants to do for tea what Starbucks did for coffee the world over.

“We want Chatime to be fashion,” says Chatime founder Henry Wang. “And because bubble tea is from Taiwan, we want it to taste like Taiwan.”

I tried that taste of Taiwan right here in Manila where, as of this writing, Chatime has opened 12 stores. The French Baker founder and CEO Johnlu Koa acquired the master franchise from Wang for his nephews, Michael Koa and Chris Cua, to run, and thus far they’ve kept all local franchises within their circle of family and close friends. That will soon change, however; Chatime Philippines, which just marked its first anniversary on April 2, plans to open 50 stores by 2014.

Chatime founder Henry Wang (center), president and CEO of La Kaffa International Co. Ltd., owners of Chatime in Taiwan, next to wife Teresa Wang, La Kaffa VP; with (from left) Johnlu Koa, founder and CEO of The French Baker; Chris Cua, Chatime Philippines finance director; Lisa Koa, Chatime Philippines operations director; and Michael Koa, Chatime Phils. managing director

“Chatime products tasted so good,” says Johnlu on why he brought it to the Philippines. “Instead of spending time developing my own, I decided to get the franchise and be one of the pioneer and original imported milk tea brands in the Philippine market.”

At the flagship Pioneer Center store in Pasig, the line is long but moving, and never seems to thin. Granted, it’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon when people need a pick-me-up the most, but you get the sense that the shorts-clad youngsters crowding the store are here for more than a caffeine boost — they’re well-versed in Chatime lingo like “QQ jelly” and “mousse,” specify their preferred sugar and ice levels like chemists in a lab, and order mouthwatering snacks like Parmesan fries and peppered chicken to go with their drinks. Very Taiwanese, since the country is also known for its street food.

I have to ask what QQ jelly is (apparently it’s a mix of pearls and nata de coco) and order the most classic thing on the vast menu, which features around 75 kinds of milk tea, fresh tea, pop tea, smoothies, juices, mousses, and even coffee: the roasted milk tea with pearls. With less sugar, it’s subtle yet delicious — you can really taste the roasted tea underneath all the trappings — and I know I will soon be wanting to try everything else on the menu. Even if I drank Chatime constantly I’d be hitting the store every day for well over two months. The Koa family definitely has in its hands a goose laying golden eggs.

“It’s a business for the young so my nephews and family are the best resources to manage such consumer demand,” notes Johnlu. “Our target group, aged 15-30, is the fashion group, which is why we want it to be fashion,” says Wang, who at a young-looking 42 is sitting on top of a US$20 million-a-year beverage empire — a veritable ocean of milk tea sold (choose your toppings).

To discover what makes Chatime so special, and what has brought it to the brink of worldwide domination, we toured the company’s tea farm in Nantou, Taiwan, and saw how they produce the tealeaves that go into drinks like Chatime’s lychee, kiwi and strawberry

green teas.

Located about three hours from Taipei by bus, Nantou is a tea-growing area that supplies approximately 54 percent of Taiwan’s tea. The landscape is lush with emerald rows of tea plants. In its virgin, newly plucked state, we see where Chatime took its logo from, a V shaped leaf formation they call “one heart, two leaves.”

When the leaves are harvested (a yearround process), they are first left out to dry in the sun, then placed in a spinning dryer until the leaves start to wilt. Next they’re put in a mill that draws the oil out of the leaves but holds it on the leaf’s surface so it retains all of the terroir’s rich flavors. The final step is another dryercum-thresher; once the leaves exit the machine via conveyor belt they’re warm, perfectly dry, black-tinged green in color, and ready for packaging or brewing.

Though Nantou grows seven varieties of tea, all teas — from green to oolong to black — come from the same process, according to Christopher Cua, Chatime Philippines’ finance director, who translated the staff’s explanations in Mandarin. “The difference between the teas is all in the drying process,” he clarifies. “Green tea is the fastest; it dries in four or five hours, and there’s no fermentation. Oolong is just a baked green tea at half fermentation. Black tea has full fermentation. The darker the tea is, the more caffeine it contains.”

Tea-rrific: Members of the Philippine media group (from left, seated) Joba Botana, Vangie Baga-Reyes, May Corpuz, author Therese Jamora-Garceau and Rachelle Uy Diaz; (standing) Jeannette Reyes of Gatchie & Partners and Nana Ozaeta with an array of Chatime drinks. Bestsellers in the Philippines are the different variations of pearl milk tea.

From the tea farm we proceeded to company headquarters in Hsinchu, Taiwan, where Henry Wang started it all: in 2003, he founded mother company La Kaffa, which operates three brands: La Kaffa Coffee, a café chain that also serves food; ZenQ, which specializes in desserts; and Chatime, which Wang started in 2005. “Chatime is not just product, we want to sell our service, too,” Wang says. “Like the Japanese, they sell great service, so we want to follow that tradition, give out great service and have a great product so people like Chatime.”

In 2005 there were already a lot of milk tea brands in Taiwan, so he set out to make Chatime different by not limiting it to the local market. “I wanted to expand it to international to make bubble tea an international drink. In order to go international, it has to be standardized, so we invented the technology of brewing machines. We were the first one to use the technology.”

On the cusp of world domination: Henry Wang’s La Kaffa International, which owns the brands Chatime, ZenQ and La Kaffa Coffee, has over 510 locations in 15 countries.

There are a lot of bubble tea brands in Taiwan but they still keep to tradition, using humans and not machines to brew the tea. “If you use the human way to brew tea, there are two things you can’t control: one is quality — it will vary per person — and it will be dangerous because they have to handle hot water. But if you do it by machine, that takes care of all the dangerous issues.”

This high-tech method also enables the brewing of larger amounts of tea in a shorter period of time, so you get faster service and more affordably priced teas. “One level where we can lower price is with batch brewing,” says Michael Koa, managing director of Chatime Philippines. “We sell our teas at P85, P90. Our closest competitor uses espresso machines, and offers it at P110.”

It wasn’t easy for the Koas to get the master franchise from Taiwan. “At first they weren’t minding us when we would e-mail and call,” relates Chris. “But in the end the wife of the owner picked up the phone and said, ‘Okay, we get a lot of inquiries from the Philippines. Please tell me what you have and don’t waste my time.’

“So we sent them our French Baker details and website, they got impressed and so scheduled a visit here in 2010. We brought them around to French Baker, and at the end of the day they said they’d choose us (over a globally established coffee and tea chain) because they wanted more entrepreneurial experience. At same time we have Taiwanese in the family (like Michael’s wife Lisa Koa, Chatime Philippines’ operations director, who handles the HR and training), so it’s easier to communicate.”

OLeaf us alone: Chris Cua and Lisa Koa learn about tea production from Chatime Taiwan R&D manager Rich Yang and operations manager Elliem Yu.

For his part Wang liked the Koa family’s enthusiasm. “You have to love the product; second, we look for hospitality experience; and third, you have to have a team,” he says. “We want them to be really ready for the product so they can help us expand the market.”

Since the Philippines also has a huge population, they knew the market was ripe. “Our bubble tea is not just a drink; we want to make it like a dessert, so we add toppings and then we have pearls, coconut jelly in there,” Wang says. “We know all Filipinos love sweet stuff, and we know the market is really big.”

Chatime Philippines is already making its mark, and turning generations of coffee drinkers into tea lovers. For newcomers Wang recommends Chatime’s smoothie, chocolate and taro series, “because taro flavor is like the halo-halo,” he avers. Tea tipplers will enjoy the Mango QQ, Strawberry Au Lait or anything with chocolate: “Everyone likes chocolate,” he claims, and we heartily agree.

They’re also rolling out snacks, cakes, and sandwiches to pair with the tea, the majority of them provided by The French Baker, of course. “We’ve set up a subsidiary called Qwikbread that will supply Chatime with foods and snacks,” affirms Johnlu.

It’s easy being green: The process for producing green tea involves sun drying, sorting then spin-drying.

With plans to open their 20th store in Cebu City this June, Chatime Philippines is growing almost as rapidly as Chatime International, which has around 480 stores worldwide in 15 countries and cities like New York, Toronto, Sydney, and soon Dubai. “Chatime in Chinese means ‘sunrise,’” Wang muses, “so my future goal is that every place that has sunrise will have Chatime.”

* * *

For a complete list of store locations, “like” the Chatime Philippines page on Facebook and follow Chatime.PH on Twitter.

Fit to a tea: The Chatime Philippines family Johnlu, Lisa, Chris and Michael at Chatime’s tea farm in Nantou, Taiwan.

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