If it all ended tomorrow – as long as I wasn’t in prison – then that would be fine,” declares Kasim Ali, the founder of the Waterloo Tea Company and the most laid-back entrepreneur I’ve ever encountered.
We meet at his teahouse in Cardiff’s lovely Wyndham Arcade, which is full of tourists, friends meeting for lunch and a particularly high-spirited group of women gathering for a plush afternoon tea. It’s smart yet cosy, and the sort of place you could happily while away a few hours with a nice pot of Oolong. And many do.
Ali now has three teahouses in Wales – Cardiff city centre, Pen Y Lan and Penarth – with a fourth one in the planning. It’s a recipe for success, with 45 staff, £1.35m turnover and a profit target of 8%. But it’s all a long way from his first career in pharmacy. He worked as a research scientist at AstraZeneca before doing a degree in pharmacy at the University of Nottingham, which he followed with a master’s degree in international relations.
“I worked in pharmacy and travelled,” he explains. “My parents are from Pakistan and we always think we are just passing through.”
Ali’s travels fired an interest in food and drink from around the world, and gave him an idea when he saw that his Cardiff neighbourhood was lacking a local community watering hole. “Where we live, there was a little row of shops but nowhere to go and have a coffee,” says Ali, 41, who was born and brought up in Cardiff.
“There was a post office, a hairdresser’s and a butcher’s, but nowhere to go and meet. We thought it would be great if we had a café there and then the butcher’s shop closed in 2008 and we thought we would do something.”
Yes, that’s 2008 when the bottom dropped out of markets around the world and the news was full of brokers leaving New York skyscrapers with all their belongings packed in a cardboard box. “For some, it was an odd time to open a new venture, but we went ahead,” says Ali, who is married with three children. “I was still working in a pharmacy and thought I would do it as a side-project.
“The crash coincided with the birth of speciality coffee and the café sector started booming. People only had seven or eight quid for lunch so cafés did well and restaurants didn’t.
“I used money from the house that my Dad said I should buy when I was 21. That was good advice. If it failed, it failed. It wasn’t all about the bottom line.
“We wanted to have a venue of outstanding quality that was welcoming to people from all backgrounds. No airs, graces or pretence – just a relaxed atmosphere with something different to offer from the norm.”
It’s hard to remember a time when a coffee menu didn’t cover an entire wall of a café, and before we happily handed over more than three quid for a hot drink on the way to work. But Ali saw the tide was turning and our tastes were changing. “People weren’t taking sandwiches to lunch anymore,” he says. “There was a real change in culture. You can be running late for work, and maybe not even have your make-up on, but you’ll still stop for a coffee.
“And it also coincided with people wanting to know more about exactly where their food was coming from – even down to the name of the farmer’s dog.
“Caffeine became the acceptable high. If you went out for a cigarette then you came back smelling of smoke and you couldn’t come back from lunch smelling of alcohol. So, we set out to make our café the best that it could be.”
Ali invested in the best Italian coffee machines, Japanese filtration boilers for tea and, after eight months, he won the best coffee shop in the UK award. And he then turned his attention to making tea Waterloo’s unique selling point. “Whenever we used to go out and ask for tea, we would invariably be served something that was close to undrinkable,” he says.
“We tracked down the best teas that we could get our hands on, involving many hours of research, meetings, travel and tastings – research that is still ongoing. Our list of teas would, we hoped, offer something for everyone.
“Some people laugh at us and how we are with tea in the UK,” adds Ali, who is passionate, very knowledgeable and almost evangelical on the subject of tea. “Pouring boiling water over stale tea and then adding a lot of milk.
“So, this was about changing people’s mind-sets. It was about getting the best tea and brewing it to perfection. Then we tried to capture the speciality coffee crowd with loose leaf teas.
“We didn’t expect everybody to suddenly drop coffee in favour of tea, so we ensured that the coffees served were as good as you could get. If you normally drink coffee in one of the large coffee chains, then we’d like to show you to how coffee should taste.”
He went to the world tea championships for supplies so that Waterloo could advertise that they sold the best tea in the world. Quite a claim.
“We were saying ‘come and check it out’,” he explains. “People drink green tea because they say it’s good for them and then say it tastes terrible, but it’s a delicious tea.
“It doesn’t have to have boiling water. In Japan, the tea cups have no handles. It’s not too hot for them to hold.
“Some teas can be brewed at 45 or 65 degrees centigrade. It’s about dose, plus temperature plus time.”
In the spring of 2011, Ali started looking at the wholesale tea business. “We were really careful about who we traded with,” he says. “We had no salesmen, discounts or freebies.”
Again, Ali’s recipe worked and Waterloo Tea can now be found in Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Adelaide, Amsterdam, Berlin, Budapest, Dubai and Paris, while a range of loose leaf teas from English breakfast through fennel to jasmine pearl are sold in the tea shops.
Despite the company’s growth and success, the community-feel is still there, with a commitment to local artists who can exhibit their work in all three tea houses, with 20% of all sales going to the artist’s charity of choice.
And the awards have kept on coming. Waterloo was recently named in the Daily Telegraph’s 30 best coffee shops and last year Ali was named as the Wales Food & Drink entrepreneur of the year. Waterloo’s Philip Blake was also last year’s winner of the world tea brewer’s cup, which was held in Dublin.
And the future? “We hope to grow,” says Ali. “All the teahouses need love and care. They’ve all got a manager and a head of kitchen and all the staff really care about what they do.
“Waterloo is committed to an ongoing exploration of the world’s finest teas and our aim is to present you the best teas of each origin and processing style and for those teas to be brewed to perfection.”
And with that’s he’s off to organise a tea-tasting with 25 visitors from France. No-one is laughing at our tea obsession now.