Order an iced tea at Eastern Standard in Boston and you’ll get a glass brewed from equal amounts of green and black tea, spiked with a little bit of mint.
The restaurant, which sells the tea for $3, began offering that particular variety three years ago, after general manager Andrew Holden was introduced to the blend by a supplier and thought it would be a crowd-pleaser.
“It seemed like a risk to break away from strong black iced tea, [but it] had incredible balance,” he said. “The beauty of this blend is that it’s not so off the beaten path or delicate or floral. People across the board are into it.”
Holden is just one of many restaurateurs nationwide who are tapping into signature blends and new flavors to capitalize on the growing tea market. Aided by a healthful reputation and the decline in carbonated soft-drink sales, iced tea orders rose 4 percent for the year ended March 2011, according to Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm The NPD Group. During the same period, hot tea orders increased 2 percent.
As customers shy away from sodas, operators are upgrading tea offerings to appeal to their desire for something new — and to keep them from trading down to tap water.
“There’s certainly been a decline in our clientele drinking sodas and ordering soft drinks,” Holden said. “They’re looking for another beverage, and iced tea certainly falls in that category.”
Randy Murphy, president and chief executive of the Mama Fu’s Asian House chain, based in Austin, Texas, said that over the past three years tea has been outselling soda at his chain’s 13 units, half of which are in central Texas.
The chain’s top seller is a jasmine-infused green iced tea. Sweet tea is popular, as well. Murphy said the jasmine green tea tastes great, but he added that he thinks his customers’ awareness about its reputed health benefits adds to the tea’s appeal.
“It’s a great complement to our food [and] one of our best-margin items on the menu,” he added.
According to an August report from Chicago-based Technomic, 73 percent of consumers say they are interested in either hot or iced green tea, driven in part by its reputation for being rich in antioxidants. Lemon and honey flavors appealed to 61 percent and 60 percent, respectively, in the same study.
But regardless of flavor, research shows tea has to be high quality to make a real impact on sales. In a study of the Canadian tea market, NPD found that customers there are more likely to order tea if they’re confident it’s going to taste good.