Does the name David Bellisario sound familiar? If not, does the name Teaopia? Teavana? How about Starbucks? If the name Starbucks doesn’t, we must be living on separate planets. But if you work backward from Starbucks, you end up at David Bellisario. Here’s how:
Back in 2005, David Bellisario was just getting his feet wet in the specialty tea industry with a retail concept called Teaopia. During that same time, he was also running a large family retail chain his father had started in 1964 called Key Man, which sold gifts, did key cutting and was in shopping centers and malls all across Canada.
Because of his long experience in retailing, David’s little tea start-up grew quickly and, around 2009, Teavana, a growing retail tea chain based in Atlanta, Georgia, which had grown to over 200 stores since the mid 1990’s, came courting. At that time, David was having way too much fun in his new tea business to want to sell it. So, he continued on and the chain continued to grow.
In 2011, still deeply involved in both Key Man and Teaopia, with a combined staff of well over 1000 people, David was courted with another offer to sell his business. But this time it was the other business, Key Man. Selling Key Man would give David both time and funds to put into the growing Teaopia chain and the offer was a good one, too good to pass up, and so the sale process began.
Meanwhile, something important to Teaopia’s future was happening in Canadian specialty tea retailing. Another start-up, David’s Tea, with large resources and extensive retail experience, including an owner with a chain of stores in another niche–serious competition–began looking at the same shopping centers/malls Teaopia was in or planning to expand into. David knew that meant landlords would either allow a competitor in, or would use the competition to raise rents as his leases came up for renewal. What’s a guy to do?
That question was answered for David when Teavana again came calling while the sale of Key Man was still being finalized and, this time, Teavana put a number to their offer. The number was appealing enough to make him consider selling ‘his baby’. His final decision was made after looking at the situation with David’s Tea and the fact that, should he decide to keep and grow Teaopia, he would have to commit at least the next 3-5 years in attempting to establish a foothold in the U.S. After some serious soul-searching, he made the decision to sell, and the sale was completed in 2012. If you were following the story like I was, Teavana was then itself sold, not long thereafter, to a very, very large company named Starbucks. Shades of Pac Man, for those of you old enough to remember.
And there you have the links in the chain that connect David Bellisario, Teaopia, Teavana and Starbucks. Now, what does a serial entrepreneur who has just sold two national retail chains in the space of about a year, with the ability to self-fund just about any venture do? Well, if you’re David Bellisario, you take a bit of time to recoup, regroup, and then you do what comes naturally to entrepreneurs–you start another venture. And the new venture is one in the field he has come to love, specialty tea.
This time, David has begun an online business called CitizenTea. I asked him why he decided to go online first and if he planned to eventually move into bricks and mortar again. He said, after analyzing what had happened in the niche since he began Teaopia, he saw the shift to e-commerce that has taken place in the market and the more sophisticated consumer who is now more familiar with specialty tea. Combined with the ability to get up and running more quickly and continuously adjust to the evolving market more expediently, he decided to do a website rather than return to bricks and mortar. Will he ever again open retail locations? David, being an entrepreneur, never closes doors to potential opportunities, but makes it clear that, for the foreseeable future, his energies will be concentrated on building CitizenTea as an online brand. Another advantage, both financially and emotionally, for a man who at one time ran two national retail chains: His staff is now himself, his former head of operations at Teaopia, and his daughter, who will be in charge of social media.
He assures me that the core value at CitizenTea is the quality of the tea itself. Even in his proprietary blends, the base tea comes through and is never ‘covered’ to hide inferior quality. In fact, David uses only one blender, based in Germany, teas are sent directly there from the estates, and if you were a fan of Teaopia blends, you will most likely find blends from CitizenTea that will closely match those flavors. Describing CitizenTea blends, David says “They are about tea with flavor, not flavored teas”. Well said! CitizenTea also carries classic unblended teas and doesn’t plan to add bags or sachets to the loose tea selection. The teaware offering is not superfluous and limited to only what is essential to best infusing and enjoying the tea.
I asked David what advice he would give to entrepreneurs thinking about, or just getting started in, the specialty tea field. His response was to stay focused on the tea itself. Don’t purchase a less expensive tea for a better mark-up. Today’s customer has a more sophisticated palate and building loyalty through providing quality is the way to go.
You may not have the resources of a successful family chain like Key Man to help you get started, but the internet has evened the playing field a little. Learning how to use social media and putting in the time can give you a jump-start others never had years ago. I can tell David is passionate about tea. He enjoys drinking it himself. And that is a must in starting any tea business, in my opinion, if only for your own soul’s satisfaction.
(You can view David’s company at citizentea.com)