Year 1 TealetThe tea world is in a unique state right now. Specifically, it is in a stream of momentum towards progress from its socially unjust past. This change is coming from consumers who want to connect with the origins of their products and feel their consumption is helping to make the world a better place. My background as a food scientist-turned-Peace Corps volunteer made me realize this demand years ago when I made a promise to dedicate my life to doing what I could to revolutionize the world’s food systems. A series of encounters and opportunities landed me in the middle of the international tea-growing industry, first in Hawaii and then in Japan. I’ve learned much in the past year since I started Tealet, a network of tea growers and tea lovers blazing a trail towards justice in the tea industry.

My work in the tea industry began on a grassroots level at the farm. My grower friends with whom I connected during my work with the International Tea Farms Alliance knew they were making tea that was highly desirable in the U.S. market. At first, I was reluctant to tell people in the industry (retailers, buyers, and wholesalers) about what I wanted to do because I thought it was too disruptive to the status quo. Over time, I started to open up more and, to my surprise, people were really excited. Introductions were made to friends of friends in the industry and now I feel that Tealet has been a vehicle for quickly integrating disparate parts of the tea industry. Tea lovers love the idea because they want to explore more teas from origin and retailers are excited because they are looking for a secure way to do business with independent tea growers. To satisfy this demand from retailers, we are building an exciting wholesale platform for exclusive access to farm-direct tea.

I started Tealet with no experience as a tea marketer. Within the first few months of starting the company, I realized that sourcing tea from the growers and ensuring they are paid a fair amount makes it impossible to be price competitive with the rest of the market. I looked at comparable online tea retailers and was shocked by the low prices, knowing that we would not succeed if we competed with these prices. Instead of changing our sourcing model and going for more commodity teas, we took a close look at our marketing strategy. We tested the hypothesis that consumers would be willing to spend more on their tea if they knew from where it came. For this reason, we focused our marketing on telling the stories of the growers instead of focusing on fancy names or features. It’s too early to say if this strategy will be successful, but we have been receiving positive feedback from happy customers. Other retailers that are interested in promoting farm-direct tea should note that they can’t compete with the commercial brands. They must make their own brand and must not be hesitant to tell the story of the growers.

The demand for high-quality, farm-direct tea is driven by a growing interest in cultural products among youth. Reports say that Baby Boomers and Generation Y are the largest contributors to the expanding tea market in the U.S., but it is the youth that are looking to explore the culture and origins of tea rather than just reaping tea’s health benefits. The most valuable contribution this market brings to tea culture is the rate at which these customers are sharing their love for tea with their friends and followers online. Tea retailers that want to educate the market about tea culture should leverage their local communities to share content on social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Tumblr. These are all the tools that we have started to use as we identified engaged groups of tea lovers online that wanted to help us tell our story. There is a right network for all types of communities. In fact, we are utilizing Google Plus for a network of wholesale buyers and will use Hangouts for virtual tasting sessions with the growers, judges, and buyers. The new tea market is very connected, and connecting with the origin of tea is their top priority.

As I begin the second year of my journey to build a transparent tea industry, I go with a great amount of energy and the assurance that the world is ready. There is still much more to learn, but it has definitely been very educational thanks to a large group of new tea friends who have taught me along the way. I am excited to work with tea retail buyers as we launch our wholesale platform.