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Cheese Tea Could Be the New Bubble Tea — If Americans Get Over the Name

Tea topped with cheese foam has been stuck on the cusp of trending stateside

by Esther Tseng


 
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“Cheese tea? What’s that?”

Mention it to anyone who’s hearing about it for the first time and you’ll likely get a scrunched-up nose and a look of confusion. Perhaps even a shake of the head. To many Americans, the combination of tea and cheese sounds downright unappetizing. But, as any cheese tea purveyor will tell you, cheese tea tastes better than it sounds. In fact, the drink isn’t that different from bubble tea, which is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. And given cheese tea’s popularity in Asia, as well as the successful migration of other Asian desserts (like matcha-flavored sweets and shave ice) to major U.S. markets, cheese tea should be on its way to making it big in America. So what’s taking so long?

Cheese tea is the name for cold tea (usually green or black tea, with or without milk) topped with a foamy layer of milk and cream cheese and sprinkled with salt. The drink is sweet, like boba, but has a savory finish. Using a straw is prohibitive to getting enough of that tangy cream overlay, so the method of sipping it from the top of the cup at a 40- to 45-degree angle is integral to enjoying cheese tea. Shops that specialize in cheese tea, like international franchises Happy Lemon and Gong Cha as well as independent shops like Steap in San Francisco, Little Fluffy Head in Los Angeles, and Motto in Pasadena, supply a lid, not unlike a coffee lid, that circulates just the right amount of air for sipping and shields the drinker from a foam mustache.

The drink originated in the night market stands of Taiwan around 2010. Back then, vendors combined powdered cheese and salt with whipping cream and milk to form a foamy, tangy layer on the top of a cup of cold tea. In 2012, the topping caught on in Guangdong province in China, where purveyors behind upscale tea salon HeyTea (formerly RoyalTea) began using real cream cheese in lieu of powders and combined it with fresh milk to concoct a premium version of the savory and salty topping. At HeyTea, cheese tea soon became a phenomenon, with lines long enough to wind around the block and wait times of two to three hours.

Today, cheese tea is popular in other parts of Asia as well, including Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. And it’s become part of the menu of longstanding tea houses that had previously made the bulk of their business selling bubble tea drinks and other desserts. In major cities in China, some tea franchises sell an average of 1,000 cups of cheese tea per day. The drink is so popular in Japan that Japanese beverage company Kirin plans to create a bottled version. “[The Japanese] have come up with their own version of cheese tea and it’s really successful in Japan,” says Jenny Zheng, a consultant for Kirin and founder of Little Fluffy Head, the Downtown LA tea shop that specializes in cheese tea. “They have a totally different reaction than Americans, like, ‘Oh, cheese tea? That sounds delicious!’”

Stateside, however, where cheese tea sometimes goes by other monikers, like “milk cap,” “cheese mouse,” and “milk foam,” the beverage is still waiting to achieve widespread popularity. “The concept of cheese tea sounds too weird for [Americans] to try. People associate cheese with pizza,” says Zheng, who was also initially skeptical of the drink. “Now when you put [cheese] into a drink, it just sounds weird.”

Uber-popular bubble tea brand Boba Guys seemingly agrees. It poked fun at the off-putting image the name brings to mind in an April Fool’s spoof in which it joked it would sell its own Instagram-friendly teas topped with cheese “ranging from the highest-quality Brie and bleu cheese to toppings including Kraft singles and Cheez Whiz (perfect for layering!).” And even prolific Taiwan-based bubble tea franchise Gong Cha — which actually sells cheese tea — wasn’t confident that cheese tea as it’s sold in Asia would appeal to customers in the U.S. “Last year they introduced cheese-flavored milk foam, so it’s saltier and cheesier and they only carry it [in Asia], probably because we weren’t sure how it would go over with the American market,” says Anchal Lamba, president of Gong Cha USA. Gong Cha stores in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Texas only offer the franchise’s signature milk foam, which lacks the salty, cheese flavor of its cheese tea option.

But there are signs that cheese tea may yet become a bonafide trend in the United States. The drink has many of the elements of foods that have achieved not just everyday recognition, but viral fame. At cheese tea shops, black teas are topped with tiramisu creams, salty milk foam floats above green teas, yielding picturesque tumblers with contrasting colors and a variety of flavor combinations. And in 2017, food media started speculating about cheese tea as a hot new craze. Although predictions that cheese tea would overtake bubble tea in popularity haven’t quite come to fruition a year later, independent cheese tea shops are starting to succeed in the U.S. by making direct appeals to the American palate.

At Little Fluffy Head, Zheng offers customized milk cream toppings such as cheesecake cream, creme brulee, white chocolate cream, and tiramisu, along with an additional option to pre-swirl the toppings throughout the drink. Emil DeFrancesco of Steap in San Francisco’s Chinatown sources mascarpone from neighboring pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani to create his signature foam top. “[Steap] is more of an American brand. I’ve got drinks like mint julep and Southern sweet tea — flavors that people might be more familiar with,” says DeFrancesco. Johnny Li, who opened Motto in Pasadena in March, batches his labor-intensive “cheese mousse” twice per day by simmering cheese and refrigerating the topping without stabilizers, which means that once he runs out, customers will have to wait until the next batch to get their fix. He offers a Nutella mousse for those with a hazelnut affinity, though his cheese mousse is still the best-seller of all his toppings.

While independent shops in the U.S. are customizing their cheese teas to their respective urban markets, franchises from abroad such as Happy Lemon, headquartered in Shanghai, and Gong Cha in Taiwan are well positioned to capitalize on the drink’s popularity in Asia by opening locations stateside. What preset menus, ready-to-go marketing, and predetermined ingredients lack in creativity, they make up for with an established reputation as an extension of an overseas brand.

“There’s always a line, often with over an hour wait, whenever we open a store,” says Jasmine Chin, a managing member of the Happy Lemon, based in San Francisco. And, she adds, the customers are largely diverse. “People of all ages come and they want to get a cup of coffee, which is great, because then sometimes they’ll try cheese tea for the first time,” says Chin. Chin has seen cheese tea enthusiasts at Happy Lemon locations requesting multiple layers of cheese foam, sacrificing even the level of tea in the cup. “You can order less of the tea and more of the cheese,” she says. “Sometimes people get triple layers of cheese; some people even say they want cheese on the side. They’ll save it to add later on.”

Boba shops that sell cheese tea are also helping the drink spread by putting cheese tea in a more familiar context. “It’s actually good for us that there’s more boba shops selling cheese tea, because it makes cheese tea more common,” says Zheng. “They’re competitors, but [their presence] makes it easier and more accessible to the general public.”

But for cheese tea to reach boba-level popularity in the U.S., tea drinkers need to get over the name and become more comfortable with the foam layer on top of their drink. In the meantime, the country’s existing cheese tea shops recognize that samples are essential to opening minds. “For the most part,” Chin says, “95 percent of the time [newcomers to cheese tea] say, ‘It’s cool! I’ve never had it and I would’ve never thought of it, and it’s good.’”

Esther Tseng is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who has also contributed to the LA Times, VICE, Outside, and more.

Editor: Monica Burton


Seeking Results & Not Just Exercises
7.19.18


 
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More often than not, training programs are thought to be the MOST important part of building a strong team.  Great results is what training should leave you with right? As if somehow the process of “training” will magically make all of their operational problems disappear.  The key is to not just have he outlined ”how to”, but more of a “End Result” that we are trying to achieve. We call this “The Why Factor”. What is your objective? By focusing on the results rather than the tasks, you can eliminate steps that has no bearing on the success of your restaurant. Going through the motions of a training program does not guarantee results. It only guarantees you going through a “training process” that may not be needed. One should not do more work than is absolutely necessary to get the desired result.  Besides, isn’t it all about results?

Job descriptions can be a tricky thing to navigate as you want the most out or your team each and every time.   The problem with providing an employee with a job description is that the job description focuses on steps and tasks and not outcomes. It is conceivable that an employee can complete each task listed on the job description and still not provide you with the required results. Think about it….your restaurants profitability and reputation is predicated on the results your employees achieve.

By defining results rather than tasks you allow your employees to interpret their jobs in the way it works for them. The result will be increased productivity, enhanced guest service, improved moral, and more sales and profits for you.    


 

Is Tips Sharing A Game Changer?
6.19.18


 
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On March 23, the government passed a 2,232-page budget spending bill. Tucked inside, on page 2,205, were hard-won, far-reaching amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) offering protections for tipped workers. The bill expressly prohibits employers, managers, or supervisors from collecting or retaining tips made by employees — one of the biggest concerns opponents had against the Department of Labor’s recent  proposal.

The new law makes another critical change. It allows tip sharing between tipped and non-tipped employees — for example, between servers and cooks — if a restaurant pays the full minimum wage (does not take a tip credit) to all employees. This is a departure from the older rules, which did not allow such sharing of tips between traditionally tip-earning staff (bartenders, servers) and non-tip-earning staff (cooks, dishwashers).

The change in the law means that restaurant operators in most states — including the seven states that do not have a tip credit (California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Minnesota, Montana and Alaska) — are now free to ask servers to tip out the back of the house provided they pay employees at least the full minimum wage for all hours worked. However, in a few states, such as New York and Massachusetts, due to the particularities of state law, it remains illegal to share tips with back of the house even if the restaurant pays the full minimum wage. -

Knowing now this newly reformed law, how do  you plan to write your tip policy? As this has been much up for debate over the last several decades, it's hard to know when it is the right time to “share” tips.   Is it when you have a good night and have a little extra to share or should it be called out by the establishment you work for?

 

I would love to answer this greatly debated topic but,  I will refrain as there are many applicable arguments to be maid on either side.  My recommendation however is that, always to do what you feel is best and “right”.  The hospitality business is a business made by people for people and it can not be done alone.  I am happy to see laws change in favor of supporting the hard working men and women in the back of the house these days. These positions are often some of the hardest working environments, lower wages and under recognized for their hard work.   

How will you use this information?  Write us back and tell us what you think HERE

 


 

Mindfulness Results
6.11.18


 
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Being mindfulness is a way to encourage innovative ideas, facilitate better team communication and improve employee interactions and performance.  You certainly do not have to be doing and hours of meditation and taking a vow of silence. You can begin creating mindfulness each day by taking a second to observe the chatter/chaos in your mind and regroup yourself and clear a path for direction..

Defining your core objectives can helps with this. If you know what exactly you're looking for, it becomes easier to stay present when discussing the relevant strategies and systems that your looking to implement.  It’s also helps prioritize your tasks and keeps your mind on directed path. Remind yourself of your purpose and bring your attention there.

Here’s how you can develop mindfulness and bring focus and clarity to your day:

1. Start from a place of stillness Start every workday with a few moments of mindfulness. Whether in your car, your office or outside, breathe mindfully and understand the nature of your thoughts. By the time you get to your  daily tasks, you will feel centered and ready for whatever may come.

Try incorporating this habit into your own day. Start by sitting quietly for two minutes. Don’t check your phone or look at your computer. Just find a quiet place where you can focus on your breathing and connect with your body. Over time, you’ll become more adept at coming back to that quiet mental place even when you’re dealing with crises.

2. Know your intentions Set an agenda and follow it as best you can.  It is good to have a meeting ritual to start off your meeting.  It allows everyone to be mentally in the same mind set and allows for a more productive meeting.  Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos starts every meeting with a period of silence, during which everyone present reads printed copies of the meeting agenda.  This is a great idea to gather focus. You can also allow a few minutes to as your team what they would like to achieve from this meeting and add to the agenda as needed.  The key is to stay focused and to get your objective completed. In my experience, this has led to significant increases in meeting productivity.

3. What is the impact Worry is the reverse to mindfulness. When you obsess on potential outcomes, you are wasting  valuable time and energy. You can only control is your hard work and efforts. Make careful & deliberate decisions by working diligently is the only time worth spending. Be aware of your thoughts and this will help keep you on track.  If they spin off and create disaster scenarios, gently bring them back to the next task at hand.

4. Reflection Being mindful and noticing what happens throughout the day.  Before heading home or going to sleep each night, consider the challenges that went unsolved. If you are looking to improve each day the ask yourself these following questions.  “What am I not hearing?” or “What needs more of my attention ?” Reflecting on these questions quietly and mindfully will help you become a well-rounded and more effective leader.  You will then be able to identify and break unproductive trends by knowing what you should or shouldn't be doing. Lead by example and share your reflections with your team.

 


 

New Technologies are Framing
the Food & Beverage Industry
6.07.18


 
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Technology such as drones, artificial intelligence & biotechnology will transform food supply chains and distributors as we currently know it. New trends will shape them and create possibilities we do not have yet today.  For instance, supply chains will likely scale and grow more efficiently as products like pea protein & charcoal begin to take off. Technology could also impact the environment with advancement on edible packaging and biodegradable take out options.  These will then be deliverable via drones and or AI and will be delivering these items not only to your home but to local businesses as well. Lab-grown proteins will become more feasible and will have a major impact on our overall meat consumption, which will lead to a  reduction in land and water usage. Lab-grown proteins and meat substitutes are another unique trend that we’ll start to see more of in the coming years.  And you can be sure that traditional meat companies are hedging their bets by investing in unique and natural products.

Another area of advancement is biotechnology. This will alter the food supply chain dramatically, allowing products to stay fresher longer.  With longer shelf lives possible, the benefit for farmers is ten fold. They wouldn’t have to sell off or discard  their product so quickly. This will be significant for any and all restaurants, as controlling waste is always an area of concern.


 

Safety & Sanitation
6.01.18


 
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Restaurants Restored wants everyone to successfully execute food safety measures and develop a culture of food safety in your restaurant.  To do this, your entire team must diligently participate. Mistakes, such as using a contaminated utensil to handle ready-to-eat food, can lead to foodborne illness and a tarnished business reputation.

According to the Center for Disease Control, roughly one in six Americans gets sick from a foodborne illness annually. (CDC)  Restaurant owners should take the time to share how much your concept focuses on serving food safely just as it does its new beverage program and daily specials.

Here are three tips to help communicate your food safety commitment to customers:

  • Teach the How and Why of FSS  When showing employees how to prepare food, clean and sanitize surfaces, and dispose of any waste, share all the reasons why following through every time is important. And that’s not just the back-of-house staff – this includes upper management as well. Keeping each other accountable and informed is crucial to a clean and safe environment.  I

  • Systems Implement a front-of-house cleaning schedule, and stick to it. To reduce the spread of pathogens on a daily basis, include the cleaning of front-of-house high-touch items, which could include laminated menus, condiment bottles, and salt and pepper shakers, into your cleaning schedule. Keeping a BOH and FOH cleaning charts posted  and then designating team members to execute is a daily practice everyone should follow.

  • Dress to Impress A great motto for all employees. If an employee’s clothing gets solid during a shift, replacement with a clean garment is important as it may lead to cross contamination. Dress for success! Nonverbal cues matter. When leaving a food prep area, remove aprons and single-use gloves. Any and all food handlers must also keep their fingernails trimmed and hair covered hats or hairnets.


 

Cultivating Creativity
5.26.18


 
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Team Effort If you hire the right people initially, they can bring creativity to their position with beneficial ideas..  What better way to collect creative feedback from the position itself? If you keep an open mind and ask the right questions, productive feedback will allow efficiency and productivity in these position. You may just come across an idea that may not have been considered once before.

Encouraging creativeness (in every position) Encouraging professional creativity from your employees will allow them a chance to contribute to the greater purpose within your brand and culture.   If your employees feel they are contributing to a better workplace, you will then have more invested and harder working team members.

Celebrate your Chefs & Teams  This industry is a professional sport and requires teamwork and strong leadership skills to show up at the TOP each and every time. Don’t let their work and dedication go unnoticed.  What your team brings to the table is unique and should be shared. If you have passion for your team, you will then show passion for your craft.

 

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Restore & Refresh
5.20.18


 
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“Restore” by definition  1).To bring back (a previous right, practice, custom, or situation); reinstate.  2). To return (someone or something) to a former condition, place, or position. 3). repair or renovate (a building, work of art, vehicle, etc.) so as to return it to its original condition.

Menus  Keeping your menus relevant and fresh has become increasingly more essential over the years. With more awareness of everything from “farm to table” to the “new diet” based menus such as vegan or gluten free, it is imperative to stay in tune with what you do best.  It is important to evaluate your best sellers to ensure your menu is relevant and your slower sellers to understand what is negatively affecting your bottom line. The 2018 research shows that “the good old days” is currently on trend right now. What have you always done great? What are you still doing great and how can you make it better?  Are you still known for your niche or is it time for a comeback? Restoring what was once a hit could make a new appearance for a old feel and nostalgia.

Seasonal Items Keeping your menus fresh with ideas and ingredients can be a significant way to highlight new dishes.  Keep a close eye on ingredients that you don’t use often or are only use in one dish. These items may cause your food cost to rise and it might be time to consider taking it off your menu.  Many ingredients are seasonal and using this knowledge as a menu guide is one of the greatest ways to keep your menus current and offers the ability to try new things. Talk with your produce provider and see what deals and offers they have for the  seasonal products they are carrying at this time of year. This can help cut cost and open the door to endless culinary possibilities.

Operational Systems  It is helpful to refresh these areas of your business as well.  First, it is incredibly important to get feedback from your team members.  They may have seen something you‘ve missed and could optimize the position to be more functional and simplified for better results. Keep your systems and procedures relevant and make sure your teams are well trained and work together as one unit.  Over time procedures can change due to workplace technology, workplace complexity, creativity and staying relevant will help keep your training processes more efficient.