Against The Odds

NORTHPORT, New York

To say that Melissa Wawrzonek faced obstacles while planning to open The Clipper Ship Tea Company would be an understatement.

In 2012 she left a stable career with the Merchant Marines, only to receive criticism from locals in her community. And on top of that, Wawrzonek was turned down for a small business loan because the bank didn’t think her shop would succeed.

“People didn’t understand how I could make money selling tea,” she says. “But I didn’t react to the naysayers, I put my head down and worked harder.”

Two years later, The Clipper Ship Tea Company in Northport, NY, is thriving. After its first year, Wawrzonek was making enough to cover the rent and her inventory. “Now every month gets better,” she says.

Laying the Groundwork

Investing $100,000 of her own savings, Wawrzonek renovated a 110-year old commercial space on a busy street in downtown Farmingdale, ordered custom fixtures and stocked them with popular loose leaf teas. In a rush to open for the holiday season, she completed the build out in only three months. However, Wawrzonek is quick to point out that much more work goes into the opening of tea store.

“For three years prior to opening I attended the World Tea Expo,” she says. “This was my research and development. I took the New Business Boot Camp and spoke to every person I could. I ended up meeting some of my closest friends through the show. It was really the first step in me thinking I could turn my tea hobby into a real business.” Lectures at the World Tea Expo helped Wawrzonek decide between running a wholesale business, a retail store or an e-commerce site and taught her how to put together a business plan.

From there, Wawrzonek started attending free classes held by the Small Business Association where she learned about taxes, accounting and marketing. She was also matched with a counselor, a professor at Farmingdale College, who helped her finalize a business plan and set up appointments with banks to discuss receiving a loan.

That’s not all she did to help get her business up and running. Wawrzonek — who became an avid tea drinker during her travels through India, China and Sri Lanka — completed a certification course at the Specialty Tea Institute.

“It was the combination of these two programs that taught me what I needed to know,” says Wawrzonek. “Boot camp taught me how to make this idea into a reality and STI taught me the fundamentals of tea.”
   
A Turning Point

Now a certified tea specialist with no debt and a history in the military, Wawrzonek was a prime candidate for a loan. But banks were not willing to lend her the $30,000 she asked for. “Two out of three small businesses fail and banks can’t take a chance on that,” she says. “I understood, but I was discouraged that I wasn’t going to get a loan.”

Still, Wawrzonek moved forward with her plans. “I wanted the loan as a cushion,” she says. “I knew I would be able to open the business with my own funds, but it wasn’t going to be comfortable.” Wawrzonek was forced to go over her numbers again. “I had to reprioritize. In business, and in general, you’re not going to get everything you want. But you don’t have to lose the dream,” she says.

Wawrzonek rethought her buying strategy — ordering a wider range of products in smaller quantities. “I wasn’t able to stock a 24 count of everything until money starting coming in,” she says. She also cut back on some of her construction costs by hiring a cheaper contractor and leaving her stock room unfinished. “No customers would see that anyway,” she adds.

Perhaps the most difficult for Wawrzonek was not having enough money for staffing. “It was just me in the beginning,” she says. “I didn’t hire my first employee until three months in.” And the work was grueling. “It’s just as hard as working on an oil tanker. Sometimes I was in my store 16 hours a day,” she adds.

Tapping into the History

One area Wawrzonek was unwilling to budge on was the design of her space. The 110-year-old building was the former Commercial Hotel. Wawrzonek wanted to create a space that looked like it had always been there, so she restored the original tin walls and ceiling, painting them a bright white. She added stainless steel canisters filled with loose leaf teas along the store walls. And, to enhance that “Old World” feel, selected mahogany fixtures — like a restored antique bar purchased on a trip to Philadelphia, a custom made counter and a mirror from the original hotel’s front desk. Anchors and navy blue details complete the nautical look. “I wanted customers to feel like they were on a ship,” she says.

The design is not only a nod to the waterfront town, but a reflection of Wawrzonek’s former life with the Merchant Marines and her love for life on the sea. “That’s what makes my store work,” she says. “People love the design and the inspiration and the passion. This is a store with soul and you can feel the history here.”

Looking to the Future

Wawrzonek says that after two years in operation she is ready to take her business to the next level. She’s been shipping tea all over the U.S. and plans to launch an e-commerce site in the near future to further accommodate out-of-town shoppers.

Wawrzonek would also like to open more retail stores in the next year. “I’m looking into waterfront areas similar to Farmingdale,” she says. “The Clipper Ship Tea Company is a nautical store and with my history sailing around the world and the nautical history of tea itself, it makes sense to open in a similar area,” she says.

“I want to find retail stores that have the same history as my current store.” While the search for the next perfect location might take some time and patience, Wawrzonek will surely have a much easier time turning the space into a successful tea retail shop. She may even apply for that small business loan again. Only this time she feels strongly that her request will be approved.

Libby Basile is a freelance writer based in New England, contact her at elizabethjbasile@gmail.com

COMMENT