Tea Is Trending: How Oregon Chai and First Watch Innovate

By Mae Velasco, Associate Editor

There's a storm brewing in the beverage industry — and no, it's not beer. Whether or not it's your cup of tea, well, tea is trending. Tea can be found in almost 80 percent of households in the United States, with over 158 million Americans drinking it daily. In fact, in 2016, Americans consumed a half pound of it on average.

Not to mention, with sustainability and health benefits making their way to the forefont of consumer concerns, tea has certainly caught millennial attention, as 87 percent of the generation drinks tea. And being the only beverage that is commonly served hot or iced at any given time, it's no surprise it's the most widely consumed drink in the world after water.

In terms of U.S. growth, hot tea has increased in sales over the past 5 years at about 15 percent. According to Research and Markets, ready-to-drink tea sales rose to $7.3 billion. The carbonated ready-to-drink tea market is expected to grow to about $1.3 billion by 2021, likely because its refreshing taste and perceived benefits (such as antioxidants to prevent cardiovascular disease, ginger to reduce inflammation, and cardamom, which strengthens the immune system and helps with digestion) make it much more appealing — like other craft non-alcoholic beverages — as sugary drink and soda consumption declines. 

From bottled teas, to making it behind the bar into cocktail infusions, to pushing tea out of the cup and onto a plate as an ingredient, there's no doubt there's a movement in the works. Here's how brands like Oregon Chai and operators like First Watch are doing some high quali-tea innovation.

Oregon Chai Expands Drink and Food Menu Creativity: Versatile Chai Concentrates Hone in on Tea Trends

A post shared by Oregon Chai (@oregonchai) on

A post shared by Oregon Chai (@oregonchai) on

Oregon Chai may be based in Portland, Ore., but its story began in the Himalayas, where co-founder Heather Howitt sipped on a rich, creamy chai tea. After years of perfecting a Western interpretation and creating a chai authentic to America, Oregon Chai offers an array of powdered mixes, single-serve cups, and concentrates that range in flavors, sweeteners, and spices. And with a USDA Organic seal, this brand believes in using 100-percent natural ingredients and packaging made with over 50-percent recycled material, each paper product only coming from forests where trees are replaced.

"Oregon Chai is The Original™ chai. We are tried, we are trusted, and we are true. At the core of Oregon Chai is our product and menu versatility and commitment to delivering best in-class chai," Angela George, marketing manager for Kerry and Oregon Chai, said. "Oregon Chai is adventurous and we are proud to offer great tasting, organic, and Non-GMO Project Verified products that satisfy end-use consumers." 

In an effort to support operators who are trying to meet the consumer demand bubbling for tea-centric bites and sips, Oregon Chai is focusing on how its line of chai tea concentrates can be used beyond a latte. Whether it is in baked goods or alcoholic beverages, Oregon Chai not only wants to make it into consumers' homes, the brand also wants to partner with operators and help them create signature menu items that take advantage of the growing tea trend.

"Oregon Chai offers a bold...sweet, and spicy way to add excitement to food and beverage menus. Chai is evolving more and more into a desired flavor because there’s been a shift in consumers desiring more [cultural], ethnic, and spicy offerings. Chai lends itself perfectly, and it uniquely enhances multiple sections of any menu. Product versatility is a core attribute of any operation and Oregon Chai is at the forefront because of the many ways our product can be utilized," she said.

Oregon Chai's 32-ounce concentrates come in seven flavors, including the best-selling original, slightly sweet, salted caramel, and vanilla. As customers are seeking more diverse beverage profiles, companies that focus on good-for-you, as well as good-for-the-earth intentions, and an increasing interest in teas, Oregon Chai wants foodservice operators to be proud of using its chai products.

And why should operators be on the lookout for tea-centric menu additions? And why will tea draw in consumers?

"Consumers want to experiment and chai — yes, I mean chai — new things. The industry continues to innovate and introduce new ways of using long-standing flavors and products. Tea, although not new, is growing steady in the U.S. and brings a healthy halo with it, all under the health and wellness mega trend we’ve experienced. Chai is much more than a beverage and it will continue to be experienced in many untraditional ways," George said.

"Innovation around tea has evolved exponentially over the last couple of years and there’s no signs of it stopping. Consumers will continue to demand new and innovative ways of enjoying tea and tea flavors."

First Watch Is No. 1 When It Comes to Clever Tea Use: LTO Carrot Ginger Chai Fresh Juice Coming in Fall

A post shared by First Watch (@first.watch) on

A post shared by First Watch (@first.watch) on

Carrot Ginger Chai Fresh Juice | Photo Courtesy of First Watch

Based in Bradenton, Fla., national daytime café and restaurant chain First Watch isn't just named after the nautical phrase that means first shift of the day — the brand is the first watch on everything fresh. Baked goods, succulent plates and batters, and everything in between is made-to-order with only the finest ingredients, all without heat lamps or deep fryers. And now they're the first watch on tea innovation, too, to bring something new to breakfast.

Introducing the Carrot Ginger Chai fresh juice, First Watch's explorative push on menu boundaries, coming in late August and served for a limited time until November. This LTO drink featured on the Fresh Juice Bar also uses an Oregon Chai concentrate, along with broadliners through Dot foods.

"The clean and authentic flavor of the Oregon Chai is what first drew us to the brand. Since we are using it in a non-traditional method — blending with fresh juice in-house —, we needed a product that had great flavors and could stand up to being incorporated with the other ingredients of the juice," Shane Schaibly, First Watch's corporate chef and VP of culinary strategy, said.  

"As a corporate chef, I am most excited about showing customers that there are different ways to use chai. By blending with familiar ingredients like carrot and ginger juices, it is a good 'entry-level' approach to the chai world for those who haven’t tried it before, and a great addition to the way regular chai drinker's experience the beverage," he said.

The idea has been in the works for almost 12 months, Schaibly first finding inspiration a year ago when visiting New York City. He and his team noticed various independent coffee shops blending coffee and teas with other ingredients.

"It appeared to be a pretty interesting trend, and we are always willing to be on the front end of trends. We tested the drink in our [Tampa] test market in the fall of 2016 and, given the successful test, we decided to roll nationwide in fall of 2017," Schaibly said.

Throughout his years of managing the culinary direction of multiple brands, how has he seen the tea trend go? And where does he think it's going?

"In more than 10 years in the corporate world, I have seen tea go from almost an afterthought in many cases to the front row, including being used in culinary applications, as well as blending with other ingredients to create entirely new categories," he said. "It is quite exciting because as a young chef working in fine-dining restaurants, I was using loose leaf tea to flavor everything from crème brûlée to braising liquid for duck, beef, and pork. It is pretty cool to see something that was only done in smaller, independent concepts to becoming more mainstream and accepted nationwide!"

And did he have any words of advice for operators trying to stay on the pulse of the tea trend?

"Operators always should be on the lookout for exciting new trends but also willing to push the envelope a little bit. I think it has been a big part of our success at First Watch during the past few years. There’s always room to be creative and try new things! I think tea is familiar enough to not scare people away," Schaibly said. "The distance between normal and obscure in the tea world is much shorter than say in other on-trend ingredients. Also, the diversity of flavors and aromas available in the tea world lends itself perfectly to becoming a great tool in any chef's arsenal."

So, take it or leaf it — the tea trend isn't just hot air whistling and steaming from a kettle. It has the interest and innovation to back it up. Tea is trending and operators should take a second look at where it's heading in order to meet the consumer demand there.