Thank Downton! The English Cream Tea Co is going international

Exporting business
Exporting business
Christian Annesley
Staff writer
BusinessZone
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Sometimes a market opportunity lands fully formed – and delivering on its potential is the challenge.  When the English Cream Tea Company launched five years ago it captured something in the global zeitgeist: interest was so immediate and so widespread that the founder has been playing catch-up ever since.

Devon and Cornwall may be the natural home of the cream tea, but if you broaden your perspective a bit and google ‘English cream tea’ the top search result isn’t a Wikipedia page but a four-year-old Essex business that wants to go global with its cream-tea vision, if it can only find a way.

The English  Cream Tea Company has its roots in a passion – and an idle conversation.

Founder Jane Malyon says she has always loved cream teas and heard from a friend about an elderly lady who was complaining that her days of going to the Ritz or the Savoy for afternoon tea were behind her. She’d become less mobile and couldn’t make the trip – but still hankered after a high-end cream tea.

It was an idea that got Malyon, who already owned a catering business with her husband, thinking.

“I could see that there was a chance to do something right away. If there was a way to deliver a really indulgent and special cream-tea experience to the door, I thought we would be onto something.”

And the next piece in the puzzle arrived quickly too. Malyon found that the domain name www.englishcreamtea.com was available to buy. She snapped it up.

“Between them, those two moments gave me enough impetus to get started,” says Malyon.

That beginning, fuelled on self-belief and gut instinct rather than market research, may have been a bit unconventional, but the effect was instant. When the company’s newly minted Facebook page went live Malyon immediately started getting enquiries – and from all around the world.

Blame Downton Abbey

What was going on exactly? Where did this so-far untapped global desire for cream teas derive from?

“The long and short of it is this: our accidental timing was spot on,” says Malyon. “The 2012 Olympics was looming, which put a spotlight on the UK, and Downton Abbey  was just finding its feet as a global TV phenomenon. Cream teas fits somewhere in this space as a great English export.”

So this perfect storm (-in-a-teacup) effectively gave The English Cream Tea Company free marketing for its proposition across the world, as Malyon happily admits.

“With every royal event, with every Olympic broadcast, with every Downton episode aired, we are getting the word out, tangentially at least, about our quintessentially English offer,” say Malyon.

Fresh first

This was five years ago, remember. Today the business is still small and focused mainly on delivering hampers of fresh cream teas to the door – and still in quite small numbers. What’s stopping faster growth?

“We’ve been grappling with what we want to be long term – and how to scale,” says Malyon.

“We have stayed in our comfort zone so far, focused on delivering the original proposition of a high-end English cream team that stands up against the best out there. But that comes with limitations – we produce the teas ourselves and ship them fresh, so scaling up doesn’t work well in two ways: one, our capacity to deliver and maintain our standards; two, the niche, UK-only market we can serve with this proposition.”

The ambient opportunity

So what’s next?

“We’ve known all along we can take this further. There’s so much interest: not just customers but media interest too – we were on BBC recently after a chance encounter I had with a BBC journalist, for example. So far we’ve fitted the business around our established catering offer that we still run very successfully. But we’ve also focused on talking widely and picking up mentors and working out how to leverage what we have.”

And the next step is the company’s newly launched ambient cream-tea range, which will travel to places the fresh offer can’t.

“There’s also an opportunity around all the paraphernalia and etiquette of cream teas, which the Americans in particular love: tea towels, manners booklets, YouTube videos and so on.”

With the ambient offer, Malyon can also take the offer to department stores, garden centres and other contexts where the cream-tea fit is good.

“It’s quite daunting,” she admits. “Suddenly we are manufacturers. Suddenly we are evolved etailers. Suddenly we are exporters. There’s a lot to grapple with, but we just have to keep pushing on. We’ve huge interest from China and the US in particular, which are massive markets of course.”

Twin tracks?

If Malyon is grappling with a business that needs to change to grab what’s going, she says she also wants to hang onto what she has already.

“I don’t want us to lose the fresh delivered offer. It might get dearer and become even more exclusive for logistical reasons, but it’s part of our DNA and is a great calling card for the rest of the business. It really works in PR and marketing terms, and I understand that.”

The English Cream Tea Company might end up with retail and wholesale divisions, then, but Malyon doesn’t want to look too far ahead.

“I know we need some clear strategies from here as we scale, and the next phase is about partnership-building too. But we still need to move at a pace we are comfortable with, and make good choices. Our worldwide potential is about to be realised – we’ve started working with a distributor with global reach called British Cornershop – and we’ll see how that works for now. Overseas trade shows are also in our sights, and there are huge opportunities with overseas distribution.”

Good choices

What has underpinned the success of the company so far? It’s not just luck, after all.

“I think building a fantastic team has been crucial, and partly we’ve done that by handing out equity selectively,” says Malyon. “We have worked with a branding designer and a web developer who have worked for nothing in return for equity. In many ways, that has been the key to us getting this far. Our next phase needs another approach again.”

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