John-Paul Lee is feeling very fortunate – and a bit dumbfounded – these days. His business, Tavalon Tea, has just turned five years old, and is growing stronger by the day. And he is being honored this week as one of the “Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business” by the Asian American Business Development Center (AABDC). The award dinner will be held on June 10 in New York City.
John-Paul was interviewed by T Ching contributor Diane Walden back in April to learn more about his business plans, but I had a chance to follow up with him last week to hear his thoughts on what this award means for his business and to the tea industry in general.
How are you feeling since you found out you’ll be getting this award?
To tell the truth, I’m still dumbfounded. I didn’t even know I was nominated until they told me I’d won the award. But I think this is a great testament to the growth of the tea industry in the U.S., and it shows that tea is a viable business here. It’s fantastic to be in the company of people like Tony Hsieh (the CEO of Zappos), who is receiving the Pinnacle Award this year.
How did you get started in the tea business?
I started working at Accenture right after college, but after 4-1/2 years, I was getting burned out on the corporate culture. I was looking for a business to develop, and used to walk by a struggling sushi restaurant every day, wondering why they weren’t doing well. One day I went in and offered them some suggestions for improvements, and ended up buying the business. I brought in some great chefs to turn the business around, and ended up selling it within a year – all while still working at Accenture.
Then one day, I was sitting in Covent Garden in London, drinking coffee, when I realized that everyone around me was drinking tea. That was my “a-ha” moment – I realized that although tea is a very popular beverage worldwide, it had a very staid, boring reputation in the U.S. It was “something my grandmother drinks” or “something to drink when you’re sick” – so I decided to change tea’s image.
I traveled to a great many tea plantations, farms, and businesses around the world, and pitched the idea to my business partner, Sonny Caberwal. We then connected with Chris Cason, an expert tea sommelier, at the World Tea Expo, and the business was born.
Did your family and heritage influence your choice of business, helping you to get into tea?
Growing up, I probably drank more tea than water, but believe it or not, I didn’t really like tea! I became a total coffee drinker.
As a former coffee lover, what is your favorite tea now?
One of the other things we’re interested in is connecting people to tea through the type of music they like. Everyone has their own taste in music, but whatever type of music they like, it forms a deep connection for them. We’d like to use that connection to music to draw them in and try some tea – correlating the type of music they like to a type of tea they might want to try. We see a deep correlation between music and tea – we even call our teas “mixes, re-mixes, and uncut” to relate them to music.
At our tea bar in New York (now closed), we had a roster of 180 DJs spinning tunes from open to close, and were working on a compilation CD of the music we played there when we closed the location. It’s still an idea that we may work on in the future.
What are the new things you’re planning for the U.S. business?
We’re focusing on developing a new and improved tea bar, in a larger space, and adding tea cocktails to the menu. We have about 30 cocktails developed already, including a “MoTEAjo” and a Mimosa with tea.
We would also like to add more Fair Trade teas to our tea menu, but want to do this in a big way – not just have one or two teas that are Fair Trade Certified. One of the other aspects of our business is the Generosi-Tea initiative, where we work directly with local charities we really believe in. It’s great to know that you can donate a product that not only helps to raise money for their cause, but is a really healthy product as well.
Will you be at the World Tea Expo this year?
Yes, actually I’m going to jump on the red-eye after the awards dinner and head out to Las Vegas. This is the first year that we’ll have a booth there as an exhibitor, so we’d love to see everyone there.
Congratulations to John-Paul and to Tavalon Tea for this wonderful recognition. It’s great to have such energetic and forward-thinking people booting tea into the 21st Century and beyond!