Solaris hopes to brew up sales in Chinese market

With exports to Germany, Italy and the UK, Solaris Botanicals’ western-style herbal teas are winning new customers, and it is eyeing a surprising new marketplace — China, writes Trish Dromey.

THE prospect of exporting tea to China, the country which invented it, is quite an amazing and exciting one for Galway company Solaris Botanicals.

Recently named as best start-up for 2013 in the National Enterprise Awards, Solaris is expecting a visit early next year from representatives of a Chinese group which owns 800 tea stores and is interested in the company’s western-style herbal teas.

“We are now at the third stage of negotiations; we have sent samples and are cautiously optimistic that this will result in a trial order.

“It will be a major PR coup if we can sell tea to China,” says company founder and director Joerg Mueller.

In existence since 2008, Solaris Botanicals is, according to Mr Mueller, the only Irish company which hand blends speciality teas.

Selling primarily to the food service industry, it employs a staff of seven and has in the region of 100 products, with ranges of whole leaf organic loose tea, whole leaf organics tea in silk tea bags and herbal teas.

Exporting to Germany, the UK and Italy, the company has increased sales by 80% this year.

Solaris has benefited from a Europe-wide growth in demand for herbal and specialist teas in recent years.

“What happened to coffee some years ago is now happening to tea,’’ says Mr Mueller.

A native of Germany, he did a degree in herbal medicine in the UK where he met his German wife Karin who grew up in Sligo and was also studying herbal medicine.

Setting up a herbal medicine practice in Galway in 2004, they began working part time on setting up a herbal tea business, working out of their attic.

Solaris Botanicals came into being in 2008 when the Muellers launched a range of blended herbal teas designed to help different body systems.

“One was for the digestive system, another was for the immune system, but the regulations changed so you couldn’t say this, so over time we changed the products,” says Mr Mueller.

Selling to some delis and coffee shops in the Galway area, Mr Mueller realised that selling to the food service sector was the best prospect.

He discovered that hotels and restaurants were receptive to the idea of having a speciality product which would differentiate them from their competitors.

He believes that the business offering high quality organic teas in biodegradable teas was possibly a little ahead of its time, especially since the tea was more expensive. “But since the recession people have become more interested in wellness and lifestyle.

“They are discovering that whole leaf teas have 95% more antioxidants than normal tea bags and the market is growing”.

When the sitting room in Mueller’s house became inaccessible in 2009 because of stored tea, the company secured some help from the local enterprise board, moved to a 1,300sq ft premises Ballybane industrial estate and Solaris took on its first employee.

Exports to the UK started in 2009 and Harrods was one of Solaris’s first customers. Helped by Board Bia the company found distributors in France and Italy the following year.

In 2011 the staff numbers grew to four and the company began selling to Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Another significant milestone came in 2012 when Solar began supplying the Insomnia coffee chain.

This year Solaris has expanded its warehouse to 3,500sq ft and has increased its staff size to seven. Turnover is up 80% on last year and has come from growth in sales to the food service industry in Ireland and in exports.

Mr Mueller says the food service industry now accounts for 75% of sales. There has also been some growth in retail and Solaris sells to three of Germany’s largest online food retailers.

“Our flowering tea product became a best seller on Amazon in Germany and is now selling on Amazon UK.’’

In Ireland Solaris sells nationwide through two distributors and is targeting five star hotels.

It has a co-branded tea product with the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, which Mr Mueller says is a good marketing tool.

Part of the strategy for 2014 will be to go after high-end international hotel chains and also some of the large coffee chains which may be in need of speciality tea to meet the growing demand.

“The market for standard black teas is stagnant, but the market for herbal is growing by 25% a year in Europe, while sales of green tea are going up by 15%.”

Innovation is an important part of the plan, and the company has devised a product which incorporates the tea in a lid, which is aimed at making the process of providing speciality tea easy for a large coffee chain.

In the next few weeks Solaris will add a new range of speciality teas. “Called Solaris Rare Tea Collection. It contains 15 teas produced by small tea plantations, including speciality black, green, white and oolong,” says Mr Mueller, explaining that in the past these teas weren’t exported outside China.

Having garnered 13 UK Great Taste awards over the last few years, Mr Mueller believes Solaris is now well placed to take advantage of the growing taste for speciality tea.

“We are aiming for a turnover of €3m in three years time.”

Fact file

* Company: Solaris Botanicals.

* Location: Ballybane Industrial Estate, Galway.

* Managing Director: Joerg Mueller.

* Staff: Six full-time and one part-time.

* Product: Organic specialty and herbal tea.

* Main markets: Ireland, Germany and UK.

* Website: solarisbotanicals.com


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