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By Wendy Komancheck

A good tea is no longer hard to find.

As an avid tea drinker,
I know when I have a good cup of tea - it doesn’t need to be sweetened. And it will be robust in flavor. I’ve drunk too many stale teas - which I threw away after trying to doctor up the taste the best that I could. Thus, I’ve wasted my money too, which made me very unhappy.

I’ve also had marvelous cups of tea that had me refilling my loose-leaf tea tins once a month. Where can an addicted-tea consumer go to buy the freshest, most flavorful tea? Why, the internet, of course!

A Sampler of Online Tea Merchants
All online tea merchants seem to have the same characteristics - they all love tea! Additionally, they were disappointed in not being able to find quality teas anywhere in the U.S. Thus, the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in; along with the marketability of the Internet. Thereby, allowing these businesspeople to open online stores.

Bill Waddington, owner of TeaSource, founded his company 10 years ago. TeaSource is located in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. His mission is simple. He tries to find the best teas at lower price levels and then, make them available to the American public. He aims to teach people how to appreciate tea. “We started out very tiny, doing small-scale mail orders and wholesale, then web business. These efforts grew. Then we opened our first store around seven years ago, and our second store [both in the Twin Cities area] this past winter. But it is our wholesale and the web business that is growing the most and the fastest,” says Waddington.

Waddington got into this business by researching tea as a hobby. He wanted quality teas [for his personal drinking pleasure] and found that he enjoyed the process of learning about tea. “About 12 years ago, I had begun to get some great teas for myself, and in my research I had begun to build contacts, resources, and friendships in the tea business worldwide. [Then] I started working on a business plan [to open a tea store].”

On the East Coast, Simpson & Vail has a long history with loose-leaf teas. This year, the Harron family, which have been owners of Simpson & Vail since the 1980’s, is celebrating the company’s 75th anniversary in the tea business. The coffee merchant, Augustus M. Walbridge, originally on Water Street in New York City, started Simpson & Vail in 1904. The original company’s name was Augustus M. Walbridge, Inc. Twenty-five years later, Walbridge sold his business to his bookkeeper, Mr. Simpson and to his nephew, Mr. Lester Vail, who was the tea-taster in the Augustus Walbridge store. The company changed its name to Simpson & Vail, Inc.

Once the business became Simpson & Vail Inc., the company expanded in size and became known as one of the main tea importers in New York City.

The current owners, Jim and Joan Harron, bought the business in 1982. Simpson & Vail moved two more times since buying the business. In April 1982, the company moved to Pleasantville, New York; and in February 1997 Simpson & Vail made its final move to Brookfield, Connecticut. According to Jim Harron, the company’s creed is “to uphold the highest standards in quality, service, and value in order to best serve you, our faithful customers.”

Spotted Leopard Teas, which has a back office located in Nashua, New Hampshire, was inspired by a trip to Kenya, Africa. The company got its idea while enjoying a safari in the African outback in 2002. “We were so inspired by the beauty of the country and people that we dreamed up a way to return - by importing tea,” says Susan Thurston, one of the founders of Spotted Leopard Teas.

The Spotted Leopard Teas’ team is an eclectic bunch. Susan Thurston is a stay-at-home mom raising five boys. Nicholas Sylvester is a college student majoring in marketing and is the Spotted Leopard Teas’ webmaster. Kara Beauchamp is a systems analyst at a mutual fund company in Boston, Massachusetts. And, Tina Facteau is a nurse who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Everyone brings something to the table with this company. As Thurston says, “together, we bring a diverse and highly creative energy to our tea company. We all have similar views about caring for others and the environment. Our tea company is a perfect vehicle for us to contribute to causes that are important to us.”

Michael Cramer, the marketing manager at Adagio Teas in New Jersey, grew up in Moscow, Russia where he says, “good tea was ubiquitous. Before starting Adagio, I also spent six years in Europe, where again, good tea was easy to find. Returning to the U.S., I was struck by the dearth of quality teas, and seeing how Starbucks had popularized good coffee, I saw an opportunity to do the same with tea. Adagio Teas was born in the summer of 1999.”

Adagio Teas serves both the wholesale tea market and the retail tea market. The company also publishes an online newsletter called TeaMuse, and an online directory of tearooms called TeaMap. Adagio is now offering tea classes at www.teaclass.com, which is a free program to aid café and tearoom owners “to train employees to be fully versed in the topic of tea, and in turn, impart this knowledge to their customers,” says Cramer.

Culinary Teas buys their tea from Metropolitan Teas whose home base is in Canada. Culinary Teas’ mission is to “provide top quality, great tasting tea to the general public here in the US.” Candie Yoder and her aunt/business partner, Denise Yoder, from Syracuse, Indiana, began the company in April 2001.

Yoder’s experience as an entrepreneur has been in designing and marketing websites since 1996. When Yoder’s favorite tea vendor went out of business, she went on the lookout for another quality tea provider. Unfortunately, like many of the other tea entrepreneurs, she was unable to find quality teas for sale within the U.S.

Yoder explains, “after several desperate calls [to find a new tea vendor], I ended up talking to the owner of the Metropolitan Tea Company and found out that there were not that many tea vendors in the U.S. that carried the high-quality teas that I had come to love. Tea is something I feel very strongly about, and I thought this would be a strong growing market to start a business in.”

“We sell to both retail and wholesale customers. We use our website, and its wonderful search engine placement to bring in new customers. Our wholesale customers range from universities to tearooms and small cafes. We only have our online store for wholesale customers which saves us time trying to put together price lists and the cost of printing them,” Yoder shares.

From A to Z: Where the Merchants Get Their Teas
Some of the merchants use tea brokers to procure their tea supply while others travel directly to countries of origin to buy their teas. Those who travel to tea estates in Asia, India, and Africa get to know the folks with whom they’re dealing with, and they observe how the tea is grown and processed.

Culinary Teas buys their teas from several different importers worldwide. “We request samples from vendors constantly to compare them for freshness and flavor of new and current teas,” Yoder shares. “I know from training and from personal experience what a fresh, high quality tea should look like, smell like, and, most importantly, taste like.”

Yoder states, “I believe tea knowledge is important in this business. There are many companies selling tea today. But most of them are business people, not tea people. They know how to sell tea but they really don’t know much about it; so they tend not to have the highest quality or the best-flavored tea. Our company is run by tea experts, which I am, who love tea and just happen to be good business people. That means that we put the quality of our tea first and this makes for happy customers, which gives us a strong loyal customer base. I think tea would gain popularity even faster than it already has if more tea companies focused on making sure that their teas were the best quality available, and they made sure that it was fresh, instead of focusing on packaging or marketing the brand name.”

Spotted Leopard Teas specializes in African teas, which consist mostly of Rooibos. Rooibos isn’t your typical tea because it grows on a bush rather than a tea plant. However, it has nearly the same health properties as traditional tea and provides a satisfying cup. Additionally, fruity flavors, vanilla, caramel, and chocolate add pizzazz to Rooibos. Spotted Leopard’s house tea is called “Out of Africa,” which is a blend of chocolate, vanilla, coconut, Rooibos, and black tea. “It’s lovely and smooth. It has a subtle flavor that is not too sweet and overpowering. I always tell people that this tea is perfect in the afternoon when you want a little pick me up,” says Thurston.

Moreover, the Spotted Leopard Tea team does extensive research before purchasing their stock. And they buy from a variety of resources to keep their supply fresh. They have seasonal teas so their tea stock doesn’t stay in supply for an abundantly long time. “We sell only the best,” says Thurston. “We buy limited supplies of tea per season and change our tea selections every few months to ensure that we do not have old or stale tea in stock. We’re transitioning from boxes to tins as another effort to keep our tea fresh once the customer gets it home.”

Bill Waddington of TeaSource gets his teas directly from worldwide estates where the teas are grown. And Waddington and his team stay abreast on the freshness, grade, and pesticide levels of the tealeaves that they purchase. “Many of these estates we have actually visited and have seen the conditions there. So, we have a good idea of the conditions and the handling processes. And many, probably most, of our teas are inspected by us or third parties. These inspections may include looking at pesticide levels, etc.”

Waddington and his team keep up on the entire inventory to make sure that it’s at peak freshness and is selling. “We have strict internal guidelines on dating and maintaining records on all tea when it arrives. We store it in a manner that absolutely ensures the integrity of the tea. We monitor sales and inventory levels to ensure all teas are moving and maintaining their quality. And we do periodic cuppings of all our teas over time to ensure that no tea has lost anything.”

When it comes to adding flavorings to their teas, most of the online merchants stated that they strive for natural flavorings, no artificial colors, and no preservatives. Waddington states, “all of our teas are flavored by hand; which is one advantage of being small. We try to use natural ingredients whenever possible - probably 90% of our teas - and when that’s not possible; we try to only use WONF flavors. WONF stands for With Only Natural Flavors, which is a combination of natural ingredients to achieve a flavor not normally found in nature.”

Simpson & Vail services tea consumers worldwide. The Harrons stay “hands-on” in their business to continually aim at pleasing their customers. Jim Harron relates, “we check the teas often for freshness and try to turn our tea inventory over once a quarter to insure freshness. We are very careful of the teas we select as we intend to be around for another 75 years.”

The Harrons purchase their teas through many different avenues. They buy their teas by sample lots and recheck them for cleanliness, freshness, and tea grade. Also, they purchase their teas worldwide; including a recent purchase from Vietnam. When it comes to flavorings, “Simpson & Vail teas are flavored with natural flavors when available, or blends of natural and artificial flavorings that aren’t available from natural sources. We use no artificial coloring or preservatives in our teas.”

Adagio Teas works intimately with their tea vendors. Cramer and his team stay actively involved and travel to Asia several times a year. They know their tea suppliers personally and regularly visit the tea estates where they buy their teas. “The selection process is fastidious,” states Cramer, “assuring buyers that all products are fresh, clean, and of the utmost quality.”

Cramer shares, “we are unique in sourcing all of our teas from origin - meaning our Chinese teas come direct from China, our Indian teas direct from India. The same is true for the other source countries: Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. The advantage of this is twofold: Firstly, our teas tend to be fresher than those sources that use the various brokers and intermediaries. Secondly, by cutting out the numerous middlemen others rely on to source tea, we are able to offer our customers more attractive pricing.”

Cramer claims that most online tea vendors say that they buy their teas directly from the source; but many times that isn’t the truth. “Many rely on brokers and intermediaries, a convoluted supply chain that not only incurs unnecessary expense, but also adds many more months - and in some cases, years - to the age of the product. We avoid this problem by traveling to Asia often and working directly with indigenous suppliers.”

By working directly with tea estates in Asia, Africa, and India, Cramer is able to keep his tea prices affordable for the American tea consumer. Adagio Teas does its own flavoring and blending. This ensures consistency and freshness of tea flavor as well as keeping tea prices lower than their competitors. Adagio uses both natural and “natural-identical” flavors, all flavorings are fresh, and there are no preservatives used in the processing of the teas. However, cost-related problems could arise if “someone finds prices lower than our own. The likely cause of this, however, is a disparity of product. Prices lower than our own are usually attached to teas that are inferior in quality.”

Yoder is constantly cupping her teas that are in stock to make sure that all of her tea is as fresh as it can be. “We go to great lengths to make sure our tea is as fresh as it possibly can be. First, we buy in small quantities, which means we may not have enough to last the whole year. At least, it doesn’t get to go stale because it didn’t sell. We also have invested a lot of money in airtight containers that we keep in closed cabinets so light cannot harm them. We do not package the tea until it is ordered and then it is placed into foil stand up bags that have a zipper seal on them. [That way] you can keep them in the bag, and it will keep the tea safe from light, air, and moisture. We think that our process has put the tea under the least amount of stress and makes for the freshest cup of tea.”

Yoder is also actively involved in selecting the type of tea she buys. She puts her trust in reputable, larger tea companies like Metropolitan Tea Company, who do the research for her. At this point, Culinary Teas is still in its infancy and is not prepared to handle the large quantities of tea that are purchased from tea estates.

When it comes to tea purity, Yoder shares, “we buy all of our tea already flavored. The teas we purchase are flavored with 100% natural flavorings, and there are no added preservatives or colors. We will not buy teas with artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. We do custom blend some of our teas ourselves, and we also do not use artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.”

Getting the Word Out
Do a Google search on tea, and you’ll find that there’s a plethora of online merchants - some reputable and others questionable. So how do the outstanding e-commerce teahouses stand out from the rest? A lot of them will claim word of mouth. That’s how I discovered Adagio Teas. I was at a restaurant that served Black Currant tea. It was so delicious that I didn’t need any sweetener to enhance the flavor. I asked the waitress where they bought their tea from, and she said “Adagio Teas. It’s an online tea company.”

For some of the online teahouses, they’ve developed a good reputation, like Simpson & Vail, by consistently offering quality teas for many decades. Still others developed niches to attract customers. For example, Spotted Leopard Teas provide tea consultants to come to your home or business, depending on where you are, to help you set up the perfect tea party. They’ll even provide the invitations.

Yoder adds the personal touch by answering the phone and all e-mails. She gets to know her customers and custom-blends their tea orders according to their tastes. And because “tea people tend to be social people, who like to share their tea,” Culinary Teas gets a lot of repeat customers and new clients from word of mouth advertising.

What are maximum orders these companies can handle? Culinary Teas can “fill orders for thousands of dollars of product at a time without any trouble.” Find Culinary Teas at www.culinaryteas.com or call them at (1)(866) 799-4005.

TeaSource can fill a retail order as small as two ounces up to four ounces, moving up in two-ounce increments from that point. “If a customer is buying tea through our retail service, and they’re buying tea in full one-pound increments, they get a dollar off per pound. For wholesale, TeaSource will fill the minimum order of any type of tea starting at one pound. There are tier price breaks at 10-lb. and 20-lb. quantities. TeaSource also offers “chests of tea” for most types and flavors. There is an additional discount for a chest of tea. Finally, “for wholesale purchasers, who want more than one chest of most teas, we would take it as a special order and will need two to six weeks lead time.” Contact the TeaSource team at www.teasource.com or toll free at (1)(877) 768-7233.

Simpson & Vail can fill orders from one ounce to the extent of their inventory, which is 20 tons of tea. The Simpson & Vail contact people for orders are Jim Harron and Cyndi Harron at www.svtea.com. Or you can call them toll-free at (1)(800) 282-8327.

Spotted Leopard says, “We have no maximum order for retailers at this point. We take accounts as they come, and [we can] accommodate.” You can find the Spotted Leopard Tea Company online at www.spottedleopardteas.com. Or you can call them at (1)(603) 321-8828.

Adagio Teas will fill up to 10,000 pounds of tea, and that’s a lot of tea, as a maximum order. Business folks can contact the wholesale site at www.adagioXL.com. Regular tea consumers can go to www.adagio.com or call them at (1)(877) ADAGIO-T

Like most trends in business, online tea businesses will continue to evolve. You, as a retailer or as a tea aficionado, should know about the product that you’re planning on purchasing, and how the tea is processed, flavored, and tested for quality. This is vital to assuring that you’ll be getting the freshest and most satisfying cup of tea possible as well as quenching your taste for tea.

Wendy Komancheck is a professional tutor and writer. She writes for local, regional, and trade magazines and newspapers. You can reach her at wendykomancheck@yahoo.com.

Tea & Coffee - January/February, 2005

Theta Ridge Coffee

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