The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas

Interview of Supporter Stores Imperial Tea Court

Premium teas selected by one of the leading tea authorities in the United States

San Francisco / USA

Roy Fong: The Guru of America’s Tea Industry

Whether you’re waiting for a ferry crossing the San Francisco Bay to your home, or browsing an alley of local gourmet shops, restaurants, and state-of-the-art stylish retail stores, San Francisco Ferry Building is the place to be. Attracting both tourists and locals to its shops and farmers’ markets, it’s always bustling with activity. Imperial Tea Court is located there, a calm place to escape the crowd.

Tea consumption, given the Bay Area’s Asian population, is among the highest in the country. There are many specialty tea stores in the area. In fact, the San Francisco Bay Area is considered the "tea capital" of the United States. Imperial Tea Court is seen as one of the area’s longest-established tea shops, and its founder, Roy Fong as one of the most highly-regarded tea authorities in an area famous for its knowledge of all things tea-related.

Fong immigrated with his family to San Francisco from Hong Kong when he was a child. As a six-year old in Hong Kong on his way to school, he was attracted by the aroma of tea that construction workers enjoyed during their break. That vivid memory never went away, even as he grew to adulthood in the US. "Before Imperial Tea, I had a towing company. But that memory (of tea) was always back in my mind. Finally I decided to close the company, and started to proceed on the long journey of tea.”

He, along with his wife Grace, opened Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco’s Chinatown, on July 4th of 1993 – America’s Independence Day. Now he owns two tea stores in the area — the San Francisco Ferry Building location, and the other in Berkeley. He also wholesales his teas to restaurants and sells via the Internet. In addition, he appears in numerous lectures, and TV and radio programs, and writes many article about tea to both US and foreign trade papers and magazines.

Roy is, without doubt, one of the leading tea authorities in the United States. In 2009, he published a book called "Great Teas of China”, a comprehensive guide to Chinese teas. On top of all this activity, he organizes the San Francisco International Tea Festival every November, one of the largest tea events in the United States.

Japanese teas: Quality & Popularity

Imperial Tea Court sells more than 300 different selections of teas: from $25 per pound (453.6 g) Everyday Oolong Tea, all the way up to $800 per pound Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well Tea. "Our teas are not cheap compared to the ones you usually find at supermarkets,” Fong said. “But I want my customers to experience the different colors and flavors of really delicious tea. There are (numerous) reasons for delicious tea, and I have to tell our customers about these reasons properly.”

In addition to the teas from China and Taiwan, he also imports carefully hand-selected premium teas from Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and other tea-producing countries. "I go to the farms several times a year and personally select the teas we import. As a tea merchant, I don’t compromise.”

Prior to a visit to the tea-producing area, he studies the region’s culture and customs beforehand, as well as the area’s climate, geology, history, and food, all in an effort to understand what influences the tea’s flavor and to educate his customers. “You have to look at the field, observe the production process, see how the tea is drunk in the production area. We need to know all the information about that tea, and I have a duty to tell our customers about it,” he said.

"Japanese green tea is popular as it generally has an image of high quality,” he said. “Genmai Cha (green tea with toasted brown rice) is the most popular items among Japanese teas here, but Sencha and Matcha are also popular. There is an image that Japanese teas are expensive, but it is not necessarily true. Some Chinese teas are more expensive than Japanese teas. Also, the price is not the only deciding factor of people’s purchase. For example, I sell super-premium Gyokuro tea from Uji, Kyoto at $720 per pound. I have a personal relationship with the producer, and I explain to our customers why it is so special. Our customers love it, and become fanatics of this tea.” According to Roy, if you don't communicate to the customers well, you cannot sell what you want to sell.

One of the things Fong would like to see is more organic tea from Japan. "Most of the tea I deal with is organic,” he said. “Japanese organic tea production is extremely limited, or there’s not enough to export, so it’s hard to find. I’m always looking for it.”

Convey culture through tea

“I only sell the highest quality teas,” said Roy. He also said that the best way to understand different teas and learn about the places they’re from is to actually sample the teas and hear the stories behind them. There is a tasting fee of $5, but as Roy said, “If the tasting is free, the customer will not taste seriously. When the customers pay for the tasting and the education that comes with it, they learn to take tea seriously.”

Roy also wants the customers to understand the culture through tea. One of the lessons he tries to teach around tea is matching tea with food. “Every day, we make Dim Sum in our store’s kitchen for people to eat or buy for take-out. Tea is drunk with meals in Asia, so pairing food and tea is very important. With Dim Sum, we mostly pair Chinese teas, but are always looking for Japanese snacks or foods to match with our Japanese teas.” Roy is currently completing a book about the tea and food pairing which will be sold at Imperial Tea Court along with his other’s books on tea.

The Potential for Japanese Tea

Roy sees an opportunity for more Japanese tea consumption in the US. “In addition to selling more organic Japanese tea, I am also interested in Japanese tea brewing sets, snacks and sweets that go well with Japanese teas,” he said.
He also sees a need for a more coordination from the Japanese tea industry to increase awareness, promote Japanese tea knowledge and increase sales.

"In order to increase the awareness of Japanese tea, I think that it is necessary to have some sort of ‘authority’ (people and/or organizations representing the Japanese tea industry) or ‘symbol’,” he continued. “The Chinese Tea Research Institute of CAAS (research institutions of tea founded in 1958 in Zhejiang Province) and Tea Boys in India and Sri Lanka are some examples. I think it would be good if that person or institution would lead the education and PR activities of Japanese tea. Still, the number of people who really understand Japanese tea is small. I bet most of the green tea drinkers here in the US don’t know the difference between Japanese green tea and Chinese green tea. I believe it is crucial to educate the consumer about Japanese tea to create larger demands; the type, origin, method of production, history, how to brew, how to drink… everything.”

Imperial Tea Court Ferry Building Marketplace
Ferry Building Marketplace, #27, San Francisco, CA 94111
+1 415-544-9830
http://www.imperialtea.comExternal site: a new window will open.