Success is in the (tea) bag for family firm
Ross Thompson explains how Punjana manages to stay ahead in the battle for what we drink
How long has Punjana been operating in Northern Ireland? Where did the name come from?
Since 1896, when tea was sold in tea chests through thousands of small independent grocers.
However, in the 1950s, tea brand names began to appear. While searching for a brand name of our own, my father came across the inscription ‘Punjab’ on top of the Gillespie statue in Comber, and given our love of Indian tea, my mother suggested the name ‘Punjana’.
My father and uncle liked it and featured it in a TV commercial on Ulster Television’s first night of transmission. They weren’t to know how famous their ‘Pick Punjana Tea’ jingle would become.
What has been the most challenging period in Punjana's history?
1975 was the year our premises were destroyed by a bomb which was intended for the police station which neighboured us in Ann Street, Belfast.
We lost the building, almost all the machinery and all our stock. How my father and uncle were back in business in new premises, with new machinery and offices in only eight weeks must rank as one of our greatest achievements.
Your teabags are sold in almost all cornershops and supermarkets in NI. Have you made any inroads into the Republic and Great Britain?
Yes. Fifteen years ago the late Geoff Salters, of SHS Group, won listings for us in 600 Somerfield stores in England and Scotland. We are now stocked in most major supermarket chains on the mainland and in the Republic.
Our recently introduced Punjana Irish Breakfast Tea, which won Gold in the recent Great Taste Awards, has won favour in the USA, and is listed in over 500 stores along the eastern seaboard.
Every day we see an opportunity to expand, whether in our established home market of Northern Ireland, or in mainland UK and the Republic.
The economy has been in the doldrums for two years. How has this impacted on business?
Not greatly, I am glad to say. We have managed steady growth during this period, tea being very affordable even in times of hardship.
Have you launched any new initiatives to combat the current challenges?
In order to satisfy our customers interest in speciality teas, we have recently introduced the Thompson’s Punjana range of teas. Our Green Tea has also been developed and adopted by the Hastings Hotel group. Punjana Earl Grey, Pure Peppermint, Camomile and our Great Taste Award winning Green Tea are among our favourites, with fruit and herb products coming soon.
How can tea hold its own in the face of coffee’s growing popularity?
There is nothing we consume more of than tea...except tap water. Coffee shops give coffee a great out-of-home presence, tea often being made badly in a catering environment.
The demand for tea is increasing worldwide. It’s a more passive, settling drink than coffee, with just enough caffeine to refresh. Its health giving qualities are constantly being talked about and I don’t see any change to its status as the world’s greatest beverage.
How important is heritage to the marketing and identity of Punjana?
Very important. People trust family-owned businesses , especially if the family are an active part of the business.
What recent trends have affected the price of tea from growers? Can you avoid passing any price rises on to customers?
Although the price of Indian and Kenyan tea has not gone up appreciably in the last few decades, over the last two years its price has doubled. We have had to pass on some of the increase but tea still remains extraordinarily cheap. The grower is getting a better, and well-earned, return.
What separates Punjana and its produce from competitors?
Just a love of quality, and a pride and sense of accountability that comes from being a family business.