How Serenitea Began The Local Milk Tea Trend

From one milk tea shop to 62 branches!

IMAGE courtesy of Serenitea

"Sugal 'yan. 'Di mo alam [anong mangyayari], " Peter said about opening the first Serenitea in the Philippines. He admitted he'd been scared before taking the leap but it had ultimately paid off. "Pero 'pag hindi ka nag-try, never mong malalaman. Huwag kang matakot sumubok." Today, Serenitea is more than just a hyped up milk tea shop, it's a household name.

Back in 2012, we saw the rise of milk tea shops all over Metro Manila. Looking back at the fast-paced and fickle food scene, all the yogurt places that had mushroomed right before were quickly overtaken by milk tea shops in terms of numbers. Primary credit for bringing this favorite Taiwanese drink to mainstream consciousness and phenomenal popularity in the country ought to go to Serenitea.

The first ever milk tea shop in the Philippines.

The tiny tea shop in Little Baguio, San Juan, opened in December 2008, after Peter Chen, a graduate of the College of St. Benilde, came back from a trip to Taiwan where milk tea was all the rage. "I saw in China, na dati mas tea drinkers sila, now nagiging coffee drinkers sila. So naisip ko, baka may possibility na dito sa atin, magka-switch naman from coffee to tea." He was also encouraged by the success of C2, the line of bottled iced tea drinks that was readily embraced by the Philippine market. With these indicators, Peter thought it could be the right time to bring in milk tea.

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Serenitea owners, power couple, Peter Chen and Juliet Herrera back in 2012. During this time, Serenitea only had 12 branches.
Photo by Sonny Thakur

Peter and his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Juliet Herrera, borrowed capital from their dads, initially planning to use it to run a little milk tea cart in a mall. They realized though that they might not get enough attention and customers since they were not yet a known brand. They decided to put up their own shop, but it took them a while to find the space on J. Abad Santos Street. Once the doors were open, it also took a while for the long lines of customers to find its way there.

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"It was very hard talaga sa simula," Peter recalls. They were losing money in the first eight months, so much so that they were already looking at the possibility of closing shop if the business didn't pick up before the year was over. Then on the ninth month, business did not only pick up, but it also exploded.

Food bloggers were hailing Serenitea as the new hot drink. Customers were tweeting about getting their Serenitea fix. Okinawa, Hokkaido, Nagoya, Yakult, and other Serenitea buzz words made it to everyday conversations among many circles. "Di namin inexpect na magbo-boom," says Juliet.

Serenitea's innovative brand is key to its long-lasting success.

Peter, who handles product development (read: he concocts all those tea drinks), knew that getting the right tea flavors would make or break Serenitea. While their product is inspired by the Taiwanese bubble milk tea, the bestselling flavors he tasted in Taiwan were not necessarily going to go down well with the general local palate.

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Today, they've expanded their menu to accommodate rice meals. Pictured above is their new beef rice bowl.
Photo by courtesy of Serenitea

"Kailangan mag-innovate. 'Yung local market ang priority mo lagi. "

Peter uses his staff as an informal focus group, inviting them to taste every new flavor he comes out with and taking notes on what they like and don't like.

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Today, he's partnered with his sister Candy Chen as the research and development powerhouse of Serenitea. Even as they've consistently topped milk tea lists and weathered milk tea storms, they've maintained their innovative spirit. The past year, they've continuously kept up with the trends, releasing their brown sugar milk tea series. Going beyond, they've even expanded their menu to have beef rice toppings.

They've kept up with the times, selling their own brown sugar milk tea.
Photo by courtesy of Serenitea
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Choosing a drink at Serenitea involves many decisions, and Peter and Juliet want to make sure the choices are all appealing. The menu features many variants of freshly brewed tea, mixed with milk, lattes, or fruit flavors, sweetened with the amount of sugar you prefer, and containing different "sinkers" (including pearls or sago, crystals or nata de coco, pudding, and pannacotta).

For Juliet, this personalized way of selecting one's drink-from the kind of tea to the sugar level-is just one way of pushing the Serenitea brand. Way back then, it had been a unique selling point, but today, it's become the standard. In 2011, to keep people coming back (even though many were already hooked), they came out with a loyalty card that gave customers a free drink for every 10 drinks purchased. The card was a big hit and customers trooped to Serenitea for their milk tea fix and stamp-and to claim their free drink 10 orders later.

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In their quest for innovation, Serenitea collaborated with Carmen's best to produce milk tea ice cream.
Photo by Serenitea Instagram page

Juliet says the big goal is to make drinking tea a part of the Filipino lifestyle-"'yung hahanap-hanapin mo ," she says. To get closer to the goal, they also keep adding new drinks to the menu. "Kasi syempre minsan magsasawa 'yung customers," Juliet observed. "Pero huwag mong babaguhin 'yung favorites. Maintain them. Magdadagdag ka ng bagong products, magdadagdag ka ng reasons para pumunta sila ." And come they do-in droves. 

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Seven years after, they've stayed true to their word and their customers have stayed. Once just buzzwords, Nagoya, Okinawa, and Hokkaido, these milk tea flavors have become the favorites that customers keep coming back to. Trends may come and go, but up to today, these teas have remained.

Creating the hot new trend: many soon followed.

After Serenitea became the talk of the town, it wasn't long before more milk tea places opened shop. Brands from around Asia have arrived, while other entrepreneurs are creating their own homegrown brand, just like Serenitea did. This has kept Juliet and Peter on their toes, and Juliet says she keeps an eye on the competition. "Maganda kasi kung ikaw ang mauna, ikaw 'yung mag le-lead, kaysa ikaw ang manggagaya."

Her days were spent looking for ways to draw in customers, looking for more choices when it comes to milk tea. In those earlier days, she took time to check each branch to make sure there were no problems, checking on the staff and their training, and immersing herself in all the business activities. Even today, in spite of just recently becoming a mother, Juliet, as the general manager of Serenitea North, is still completely hands-on.

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Part of Serenitea's menu is an array of handcrafted milk teas.
Photo by courtesy of Serenitea

Despite the competition, Juliet considered the boom in the milk tea market a boost for Serenitea. In 2011, they started getting calls from developers about possible locations for their shop. "Dati, kami 'yung naghahanap. Hindi kami pinapansin."

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Since the tables have turned, Peter and Juliet currently have a total of 62 shops and are aiming to open eight more by the end of the year. Even as of today, they've still been fending off many requests for franchising. It doesn't seem like they need to franchise as they continue to grow, having branches as far as Davao. Yes, although they've reached success in Serenitea, they haven't grown comfortable. That's why we can always expect something better, something new at this popular milk tea shop.

Feature was published in the March 2012 issue of Yummy magazine. Information has since been updated, and edits were made by Yummy.ph editors.

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