For founder of Gryphon Tea Company, Lim Tian Wee, the cuppa is far from a sunset industry.
Gryphon Tea. One might be forgiven for thinking it is a chi-chi label from some far-flung country, but nothing could be further from the truth. Artisanal tea it may be, but the founder of Gryphon Tea Company, Lim Tian Wee, 40, comes from three generations of local tea manufacturers who have been operating under the family business name of Lim Lam Thye since 1918 when it was started by his great-grandmother.
Says Lim, who has been drinking a cup of tea every day since his secondary school days, “Instead of going into another commodity business, I wanted to create something with more value. For example, it used to be there was only beef and pork, but now you have Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork.”
Having honed a keen sense of business acumen through a marketing degree (majoring in nutrition and food marketing) and working experience in the fast-moving consumer goods industry, Lim made the eventual leap from employee to entrepreneur in 2001.
Since then, business has grown by fourfold in terms of revenue. This year, Gryphon plans to expand by 50 per cent, by virtue of the developments in the local fine dining scene. To quote a cliché, there is no magic formula to the success Gryphon Tea is enjoying today but sheer hard work, faith and perseverance. Starting out with all of S$2,000, which he used to buy tea and experiment with other ingredients, Lim recalls, “My first three years in the business were miserable. During that period, God alone was my fuel.”
His breakthrough came when he got his first big customer, who only started buying from him two years after he first spoke to them. “Whatever business you do, you need an anchor customer, just like the shopping malls. With that, your business will get by through word-of-mouth, and it’ll be easier for you to grow.”
While it always requires a leap of faith to start a business, the fundamentals apply. “You must understand the market and know how your business proposition and marketing mix fits in. Before Charles and Keith came along, people were already saying that the fashion retailing industry was too congested—now look where the brand is. So, just as there is always a better shoe shop, there is always a better tea company. In order to keep re-inventing oneself and stay ahead, you need to know where the trends are heading,” Lim advises.
And in order to trend-spot, here’s his tip—look at what’s happening at the top. “What you see in the mainstream segment today, be it in dining or fashion, first trickled down from fine dining and haute couture.”
Some say that tea is a sunset industry, but Lim disagrees. “There is no sunset business as long as somebody somewhere is consuming the product—and people are definitely not going to stop drinking tea overnight. What might change, though, is the way people consume it, hence the importance of constant innovation.”
|PHOTO COURTESY OF LIM TIAN WEE|
Gryphon’s unique blends traverse the world with ease: Yuzu Pear Blossom (sencha with pear overtones), Winter Dream (black tea with nutmeg and almond), Pomegranate White Tea (caffeine-free white tea with juicy pomegranate) are just a few of the imaginative blends available. Even its teabags have taste—whole tea leaves nestle in a silken mesh, suspended by a braided thread. You’ll never touch a paper teabag again after trying Gryphon’s.
Gryphon Tea Company is doing more than just pleasing discerning palates. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that his father was once a full-time artist until he married Lim’s mother and surrendered his brushes, but for the past few years the company has been an ardent supporter of the local arts scene. It has involved itself with events such as the Singapore Arts Festival and the Singapore M1 Fringe Festival.
Its latest project is a collaboration with the National Heritage Board’s Heritage Industry Incentive Programme. The company will be commissioning three local artists to create personal interpretations of how a particular element of Singapore’s heritage inspired them. The completed works of art will then be featured on the packaging of several tea blends, with each set inclusive of tickets to selected museums.
“Most Chinese companies won’t do things like this—not only are there no tangible financial returns, extra cost has to be incurred to commission the artists. But it’s Gryphon Tea’s way of paying it forward. We may not be a big company with the ability to make huge cash donations, but we can help a fellow Singaporean grow their career and help bring their products to the market.”
While the original artworks of the series will be auctioned off at the World Gourmet Summit Charity Gala Dinner in aid of Community Chest later this month, the limited-edition tea sets are available at the National Museum and Singapore Art Museum, among others, as well as duty-free shops and Changi Airport. “The idea is to bring the product overseas, to reach people who want to know a bit more about Singapore. Hopefully, people will be able to appreciate their works and they will become successful in their own rights.”
Lim’s love of creativity is not limited to the creative arts. As a creator, he recognizes and appreciates innovation, even from those who might be perceived as competitors. He says of the newly-opened Arteastiq Tea Lounge by luxury furniture boutique Marxx at Mandarin Gallery, “What’s interesting is that they’ve created the buzz from the furniture industry, people who are outside the tea business, as opposed to those who are in it and who are more prone to seeing things through a funnel. It’s great that they have created new items (a unique selling point are the alcoholic and fruit-infused teas) to excite the market and create a buzz.”
How To Pair Your Tea With Food
On tea-pairing: “There are generally two principles in tea-pairing—that of complementing and accentuating.
Teas like Darjeeling, which is a kind of black tea, very mild, ‘well-behaved’ with aromatic, floral notes goes very well with sandwiches or cakes like strawberry shortcake. But if you’re drinking something like Chinese black tea, which is complex and full-bodied yet not astringent, it goes well with the musky flavors of smoked beef sandwich. If you’re looking for something that’s very dominant, the idea is to accentuate the taste notes. For example, if you eat something with coffee, for example, and all you taste is the coffee, that means it’s not a good pairing.”
Personal favorite pairing: “Gryphon Tea’s Straits Chai spiced tea with plain butter cookies.”
How to tell if it’s good quality tea: “Generally, a good brew does not require any sugar to taste good.”