One of the most exciting places to be in the tea industry is in retail, introducing consumers to the magic of the whole leaf. Amy Lawrence thrives on this challenge.
“Retailers have to be ready to introduce fine teas as a one-on-one experience,” she says. “For some, tea takes them back to childhood memories with a parent, grandmother or aunt. Most of my customers like the familiarity of flavored teas that remind them of something they’ve experienced before,” she says.
The next step is to explore unblended premium teas, “They’re captivated when I show them the difference between whole leaf and the tea cut and blended for bags. Especially teas that have great legends,” she says. Her personal favorite is Da Hong Pao, the Great Red Robe. “Stories like these draw people into the different cultures of tea.”
Her own journey traced similar steps from the familiar flavored tea bags to the romance of the whole leaf. The decision to start a retail business was inspired during afternoon tea with her mother at The Elegant Garden in Citrus Heights, Calif.
“That was my Ah-Ha moment. I knew that this was something that I wanted to do for myself. It wasn’t about the leaf at that point. It was about the experience of afternoon tea.” She opened An Afternoon To Remember the following year. The traditional Victorian style tea house was located in Newcastle, Calif. It combined her background in gift store management and catering as well as a career in education. Knowing her way around a commercial kitchen and a business spreadsheet were essential.
This was also the beginning of her tea education. “I didn’t know anything about tea until I went to Magnolia & Ivy’s tea school and then took Irene Nielsen’s training, attended World Tea Expo and STI’s Certification Programs. After that, my focus began to shift to artisan teas and countries of origin. I’m bringing my customers along with me on my own adventure,” she says. Her favorite part of owning and running the business were the classes she taught, the tastings she organized and the tour that she led to England, sipping the brew in historic sites and meeting tea experts like Jane Pettigrew.
Lawrence has watched with approval during the last seven years as the industry embraced quality tea in specialized bags and established new tea bars and shops where high-end teas are properly prepared and served.
“Even Tupperware is selling tea. They have a set of flowering teas with a glass teapot. We’re even seeing better quality teas at Starbuck’s and Costco.” Customers come to her more knowledgeable than in the past, wanting to broaden their experience.
“This is an exciting time for Tea People,” says Lawrence. “I’d love to see more festivals and opportunities for people to experience new tea. There’s so much to learn and my customers are hungry for that knowledge,” says Lawrence.
Her husband’s recent job relocation, and a desire to spend more time with their sons, inspired her to transform An Afternoon To Remember from the original brick-n-mortar experience to an online venue.
“It’s been a challenge to stay in contact with my customers and to continue to give them quality personal service,” says Lawrence. To retain that connection Lawrence created her own unique blends, continues to teach classes, publishes a monthly informational newsletter and shares favorite recipes from her eight cookbooks to encourage people to create teatime for their family and friends.
“This also gives me more time to mentor new businesses. I want to support others as I was supported when I began.” All this activity has inspired a second business, Treasured Leaf, a venture that features only premium, unblended loose leaf teas. She promotes these teas at public tastings, gourmet markets, Women’s expos and other venues where she can teach and offer samples to total newcomers.
Many who share the dream of creating a tea business want to know what background and experience are necessary to succeed. Amy points out that her hands-on mentoring in a tearoom and a bakery were two important investments in time.
One Mother’s Day weekend I volunteered at Tea In The Garden in Placerville, Calif. “I experienced firsthand the critical need for organization and timing. It allowed me to see the details that I had never imagined.” Another important experience was working in a large bakery. “Running a commercial kitchen is much different than home cooking.”
These experiences helped her develop the recipes that give her customers the authentic experience of made-from-scratch dishes combined with practical economics necessary for success.
One ways she helps other tearoom startups is by publishing some of her secrets to success. “Master Tearoom Recipes” shares her most valuable large-portion recipes while “Managing Your Tea Room Kitchen Effectively; Controlling Costs and Menu Planning without Sacrificing Quality” gives tips on how to use these recipes to coordinate menu plans that help newcomers keep from learning expensive lessons the hard way.
“Teaching is my passion; teaching about quality tea and about running a tea business. I want to see others succeed and have an easier time of it than I did. There’s no reason not to be generous with our experience.”
This generosity is one of the things that has made her a popular speaker at The World Tea Expo, creating classes for the core curriculum that are based on the kind of information she wished had been available at the beginning of her tea career.