“Beirut is the window to the Middle East,” said Avakian who grew up in Yerevan, the capital and largest city in Armenia. A Fulbright Scholar, he and boyhood friend Simon Simonian, a computer scientist, emigrated to the United States in the 1990s where they teamed with French management consultant Daniel Lindwasser to launch the chain in 2003.
Argo Tea is privately held with estimated earnings of $20 million, according to an article in Time Magazine. The company operates 30 locations, mainly in Chicago where it is headquartered, but with five locations in New York City and one each in Boston and St. Louis.
The company’s bottled teas, which sell for $2.40 for a 13.5 oz. can be found in more than 3,000 grocery locations including Whole Foods Markets, Safeway and Dominick’s.
Investors including billionaire Sam Zell and Oxford Capital have fueled the company’s expansion which accelerated during the recession. The company now employs more than 400 workers, most part-time.
Avakian said the chain intends to add several Middle East locations and expressed ambitions to expand to Asia and Europe.
The first floor location in Le Mall, Dabbayeh, offers 40 tea blends, pastries, snacks and sandwiches including a chai cherry chicken sandwich cooked in the spiced tea.
“We want to do for tea what Starbucks did for coffee,” Avakian told the newspaper reporter, recounting the two years he worked as a barista at his first cafe, sourcing teas and mixing them with a variety of international ingredients to create healthy, refreshing and often unexpected drinks.
Argo has located several of its stores near Starbucks coffee shops including the Willis Tower in Chicago, O’Hare Airport and the Flatiron Building in New York City.
The menu in Beirut closely adheres to the U.S. offerings with Maté Laté a signature Brazilian maté, with almond and milk; the Hibiscus Tea Sangria, a mixture of iced tea and fresh fruits; the White Tea Acai Squeeze, white tea and lemonade; and the Green Tea Ginger Twist.
Tea is the fastest growing beverage segment in the U.S. over the past 10 years and Argo is a considered a tea retail pioneer. In addition to loose leaf tea and concentrates, the shops sell a range of Fair Trade and certified organic coffee.
Argo is one of several Western foodservice vendors in Beirut. Succeeding in the Middle East will be easier, he says, because a culture of tea drinking already exists.
Sources: Daily Star (Lebanon) Time Magazine