Japanese firm hopes green tea catches on here

Tuesday August 28, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Steaming, swamp green and topped with whipped cream, the chocolatey “o-cha mocha” drink is the brainchild of Japanese executives hoping to do for green tea what Starbucks has done for coffee. 

Japanese firm Imagene Corp., whose parent owns a Coca-Cola bottling franchise in Tokyo, has plunked down $1 million to finance a flagship Green Tea Terrace store in Westwood that could pave the way for a nationwide chain of shops. 

Set to open next month, Green Tea Terrace will feature dreamy murals with floating cursive writing, baristas serving tea-based espressos and lattes; prepackaged teas to go; and snacks — in this case, Asian-inspired food like sushi, soybean pods and red bean shakes. 

“This store has been my intention since 20 years ago,” said Japanese-born Hiroshi Maeda, who conceived the idea and is partnering with Imagene. 

But industry experts warn that while the ambitious plan may work on either coast, middle America probably isn’t ready for milky green drinks that will cost up to $6.50 each. 

“In major metropolitan areas, there is probably room for these types of things because of the magnitude of the Asian communities,” said Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Counsel of the USA, a group representing the $4.5 billion American tea industry. 

“Whether it’s right for Kansas City, I would say no, not yet,” he said. 

Americans are more familiar with green tea than it might seem. The market now stands at $120 million a year compared to just $200,000 four years ago, Simrany said. 

“People’s tastes are changing,” he said. “Once you taste green tea ... many people like what they taste.” 

Imagene hopes to cash in on that growing popularity and the fact that Americans have proven they’re willing to pay a steep price for their caffeine. 

Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., the nation’s No. 1 specialty coffee retailer, typically charges about $3.50 for a mocha or latte and has seen sales skyrocket 66 percent over three years to reach $2.17 billion in 2000. 

Starbucks has grown so confident that it’s opening 1,200 stores a year — roughly three new locations every day, said spokeswoman Audrey Linkoff. 

Maeda grew up in a family of green tea importers in the Japanese port town of Nagasaki. His mother was well versed in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, an elaborate ritual that involves a powerful blend of green tea called macha that must be whipped into a froth and sipped from a bowl with both hands. 

Maeda said green tea consumption in Japan has suffered since the end of World War II, when the nation got its first taste of Coca-Cola. 

His ultimate goal is to make his special blend of green tea drinks so popular in America that they will also sell in Japan as a result of that nation’s fascination with Western culture. 

“Japanese culture is very deep, and breaking a culture from the inside is hard to do,” he said.