Could it be true? I started writing for T Ching in 2009? Time flies! And life moves on. It made me wonder about some of the companies and tea entrepreneurs I have written about over the years and where they are now. So, I did a little investigating and found that changes have definitely occured. Here is a short wrap-up and update!
Has anyone in the industry not heard of Argo Tea? One of the first to open a ‘coffeehouse style’ tea concept in Chicago, Argo had already expanded to some 14 shops whenI first wrote about them in 2009. Since, Argo has opened 20 stores in several areas, expanding from Chicago and into New York City. Argo received venture funding, has shifted focus to using their brewing technology to bottle specialty tea beverages; wholesaling them to the grocery and foodservice industries. Arsen Avakian, one of the founders, stays on as CEO.
A very upscale tea business begun in 2005 by two partners, one of whom, John-Paul Lee, has also been a contributor to T Ching. His very handsome ex-partner, Sonny Caberwal, was serendipitously discovered and became a male model for the famous designer, Kenneth Cole (and, as I have read, the world’s first Sikh model). Sonny has gone on to entrepreneurial ventures in lifestyle branding and tech. John-Paul is still in the tea business, opened a flagship tea shop in Trump Towers, NYC, after closing the former Manhattan space, and also has a Tavalon in Korea. Tavalon is not only retail, but wholesales to upscale venues. As if these accomplishments were not enough, John-Paul also has begun a fast/fresh food concept called Kosofresh, sourcing the best ingredients from South Korea and locally. We Tweet each other infrequently…just to touch bases. Amazing, John-Paul. Did I mention he was awarded a few honors, such as: Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business Award; Asian American Business Development Center (AABDC) June 2010; USPACC Top 10 Asian American Business Award 2011; Recognition in America.gov’s Start Up Entrepreneur Gallery 2008?
T. Tea Bar
Shelly and Lance Blanshei started as coffee entrepreneurs with a much loved coffee house called Bidwell Perk in Northern California, and moved into tea with a ‘mini chain’ of mall tea spaces called TeazMe. When partner issues moved them out of TeazMe, they didn’t skip a beat, and opened a new concept in the city of Chico which eventually became T. Tea Bar & Fusion Cafe in 2006, still going strong with over 40 employees. The tea concept has come into its own as a full-scale Asian-themed cafe and an ‘on tap’ iced tea bar. They consistently receive 5 star reviews on Yelp and other venues. They have also provided consulting in the food and beverage niche. Who knows what we’ll see next from these lifestyle entrepreneurs? Oh yes . . . they are working with Whole Foods, exploring a concept modeled after T. Tea Bar since 2013. The first was in the Newport Beach Whole Foods, called Tea Hive.
David Bellasario was already a successful and seasoned entrepreneur in Canadian mall retailing when he saw the opportunity in loose leaf tea, and founded Teaopia in 2005. The stores were always located in high-end premium mall space. David was so focused about how he wanted the chain branded, he actually wrote his own article, so to speak, rather than have me interview him for it. And a great job he did at that! The chain was over 30 stores strong when the news came: Teavana (now owned by Starbucks) purchased David’s tea chain for many millions of dollars in 2012. The Teaopia signs came down and the Teavana signs went up. Another successful venture for a very skilled and hard-working businessman/entrepreneur!
And then, there are those that have gone . . . I don’t know where.
Chris Nguyen founded, with his wife Jaimie, a beautiful, purist tea concept called Teapod in Northern California in 2009. No coffee or espresso, organic loose leaf teas and specialty beverages in a pure white environment, with a very Zen feeling in a laid-back upscale town. Unfortunately for San Anselmo, the store was eventually closed and Chris wanted time to rethink tea retailing. I was surprised when I heard the news . . . I really thought this was one we’d be hearing much more about in the future. It was a gem.
The Tea Garden
The second, Mark Ukra, was a well known retailer in a beautiful spot called the Tea Garden on Melrose in Los Angeles. He was also a guest on a number of shows, including Oprah, and wrote books on tea and a diet using tea as its center. Mark was flamboyant, dressed in orange, and called himself Dr. Tea. His family had been in the tea business for generations in the Middle East. Mark eventually closed the Melrose store, with its’ beautiful relaxation/patio garden, to concentrate on his online business and writing. When I visited the website, I could not find any trace, nor could I track Mark’s current ventures. I liked Mark’s positive attitude and complete passion for great tea and wish him well in his future tea endeavors.
So, there it is. Nothing in life stays the same. But of one thing I am fairly sure: These entrepreneurs will never live a boring life, they will never ‘quit’ and they will always be looking for ways to improve not only their own lives, but how to make the world a more exciting and interesting place for others.
Diane Walden has been in the tea business since 2007, when she became part-owner in three tea stores, two of which continued until 2016 and were sold. She and her husband also ran their own tea shop in her hometown in Southern California for almost five years before moving the business online. Always interested in the brewing importance of the tea experience, the couple licensed a commercial brewer to a coffee and tea equipment manufacturer recently and are hoping it will be on the market in the future. ...See Diane Walden's Full Bio and List of Articles
I think you and Oprah got it right. We love hearing follow up stories. One thing that I’m left with – why one success and not others that you had such a good feeling for? I’m not suggesting that every tea shop should or will succeed but of those you interviewed, I’m confident you’re an excellent judge of the look and feel of the store and owner. What do you think might have been missing from Teapod for example. Sounds like they had created a great retail environment, wonderful owners, but was the location not optimal? And then The Tea Garden really confuses me. Mark certainly had the exposure- thank you Oprah and location – doesn’t EVERYONE on Oprah make it BIG:)? Does anyone close a successful retail business to “concentrate on his online business and writing”?
Money, if all else is equal. You said this in another post. I’m sorry it’s that way, but how many of us know that there are stores out there who have better product and service but it takes money and lots of it to get the right locations, sustain, grow, expand. If anyone disagrees, I’d love, love, love to hear.