Recently, Diane Walden (DW) interviewed Chris Nguyen (CN) of Teapod, a Northern California tea retailer, who Diane found while doing her usual “tea googling”.

TeapodThis is the first in Diane’s short series of posts on interesting new specialty tea concepts.  For more on the very lovely, hip, and modern Teapod, visit them at their web site or stop by their shop in San Anselmo for one of their innovative tea-based drinks.  Chris and his wife, Jaimie, are always thinking of exciting new beverages to add to their line-up.

DW: What was your business background prior to getting into the specialty tea business?  Why did you go into this business?
CN: I was a full-time journalist for about a decade, then spent a few years in public relations and marketing. I’ve always wanted to start my own business and was inspired to do so when I met my wife, Jaimie, who is co-owner of Teapod and works at the store with me. Here’s how it happened… While we were still dating, she made me a tea latte one Sunday morning. I thought it was coffee and said, “Great coffee, baby”. Her reply: “It’s tea, a tea latte.” I started thinking about where I could find a fresh-steeped tea latte. Nowhere, really. About a year later, when I was commuting via ferry into San Francisco for a PR job, I started to draft ideas that eventually became the back-bone for a business plan. Then things just moved forward from there.

DW: Do you work hands-on in the business?
CN: Yes indeed. I run every part of the business on a daily basis.

DW: Do you also serve coffee and espresso?
CN: No coffee or espresso. Teapod is dedicated to just teas. We’re an “oasis for tea lovers”.

DW: Are your recipes original?
CN: Yes and no. My wife and I spent a year building the business, turning our home into a test kitchen. Some recipes are original, some are borrowed.

DW: How much are food and general merchandise a part of your shop?
CN: Food is about 15% of our business, and teaware and bulk tea account for about 20% of our business.

DW: What made you decide on the concept and decor (area/demographic/etc.?)
CN: Our concept is a modern “quick service tea café” – the Starbucks of tea of sorts – that serves fresh-steeped tea drinks. Tea houses serve tea the traditional way, in tea pots, and it’s usually really expensive (though we do offer teapots for customers who want tea that way). We wanted an innovative approach to appeal more to the general consumer and to aspiring tea drinkers. We also wanted a fresh modern look, so we went with a Zen/minimalist look – concrete floor, high ceiling, white walls. It feels like a New York art gallery.

DW: What have been your biggest challenges and how have you dealt with them?
CN: Opening a new business and a new concept in a bad economy with bad consumer confidence. We’re big on great customer service and marketing and finding the right clientele for our concept. In addition, we take every opportunity to educate our customers on tea and help them select the best tea for their mood or lifestyle. As a result, we are hearing great feedback – that Teapod is gaining traction in a tough market – and that people love their experience with us.

TeapodDW: What would you do/are you doing differently now than when you opened because of your experience in running the shop?
CN: We’ve changed our hours. We were open 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM on weekdays when we first opened. That works for a coffee shop, but not a tea shop. Tea drinkers, we’ve realized, are less rushed than their counterparts. And we’re in a sleepy town, where people wake up later and settle in earlier. Now we open 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM on weekdays, which is perfect. It doesn’t really affect sales – and most important, we are working less.

DW: What is the most important piece of advice you would give to anyone thinking about opening a retail shop featuring specialty tea?
CN: Do something innovative that appeals to your market.

DW: What trends are you seeing in the types of products the public is moving toward?
CN: I can speak for my market. My customers are becoming more aware of what they put in their bodies, so there is a greater demand for organic products. That’s why our teas are 100% organic, as are the other products we use, such as milk and agave nectar.

DW: What are your growth or expansion plans, if any?
CN: To open more locations in the Bay Area. We have customers who travel up to 30 miles to Teapod and they tell us they’d love a store in their neighborhood. We’d love to meet investors, developers, and landlords who share our vision.

DW: What makes your concept different from other modern tea concepts that also offer a number of loose-leaf teas, such as Remedy Teas in Seattle or Cargo & James in Canada?
CN: Teapod’s main thrust is serving fresh-steeped tea drinks. Sure, we also offer bulk teas and teaware, but our focus is on serving tea concoctions, which include hot/iced teas, tea lattes, tea smoothies (new), and boba teas.

DW: Are you planning to stay with retailing or add any meaningful wholesaling efforts?
CN: Retailing.

DW: How important to your business is Internet selling?
CN: We currently do not sell online, but have plans to once we get more established.

DW: Do you do your own blends?
CN: We’re working on it. However, with our quick infusion process, people are able to create a personal blend. For example, an Assam steeped with Rooibos. Each cup is a reflection of their “personaliTEA”.

DW: How did you select your tea choices?
CN: We have three criteria; the teas have to 1) taste really yummy, 2) be organic, and 3) have a medicinal value.