By Geoffrey F. Norman
J-TEA International is located in the college town of Eugene, Ore., but this tea shop was conceived in 2004 in faraway Taiwan where owner Josh Chamberlain was attending Cheng Kung University. At the time, appreciation for Taiwanese teas in the United States was still in its infancy. On his return in 2005, Chamberlain decided that the best way to enjoy these teas back home was to establish a wholesale business.
The name “J-TEA” stemmed from a conversation Chamberlain had with his grandmother. He came to her with a list of possible shop names, and that was her suggestion. The “J” doesn’t stand for “Josh”, but rather represents a sign of respect for ancestry.
Since his return, Chamberlain has traveled annually to Taiwan, importing directly from small farms. “We personally visit these farms,” he explains. “Tea is an agricultural product that changes from year to year and from season to season. Thus, it is critical that we visit the farms and try each tea onsite before importing to the U.S.,” he said.
What began as an online wholesale and retail operation blossomed into a suburban storefront by August 2007. The reason he opened a physical shop a few miles from the University of Oregon campus was to increase the visibility of his brand, explains Chamberlain. Taiwanese teas remained his primary focus due to his personal experiences with the country’s tea and culture but J-TEA International also offers a selection of teas from the Chinese mainland.
Around the same time, he began experimenting with a line that included a relatively new product – aged oolong. The puerh bubble had yet to burst and tea masters in Taiwan were experimenting with storing other (non-fermented) teas for long periods of time.
Chamberlain described aged oolong as “the comfort food of Taiwanese tea culture” decided to see what the response would be in the United States. As a result, J-TEA was among the first to sell aged oolong in the Pacific Northwest.
His store front was previously a small house set well back from the street. The entire front wall was transformed with four large windows and a glass door. There is a patio and tables out front. Once entering, guests are treated to walls of merchandise surrounding the interior. Teas, grouped according to category, line the left wall with aged pu-erh to the back. His teaware selection includes many Yixing pots.
Unique to the teashop are two large bourbon barrels, left of center. One houses teas that have been aged in said barrels. (To date, there are three in the series.) The second displays a black tea made from leaves grown in Salem, Oregon, but processed by J-TEA.
At the center of the teashop is the tasting station. Guests are encouraged to sample before purchasing, or they can order tea by the cup. Tea is served in-house or to-go. In the warmer months, J-TEA also sells frothy iced teas.
The primary source of revenue is tea and merchandise retailed in the shop– which account for roughly 65% of annual sales. Wholesale orders make up roughly 30% and online sales make up the remainder His top selling teas are Green Spring (a less oxidized, green-style Taiwanese oolong) and Eugene Breakfast (a Yunnan Dian Hong).
Chamberlain attributes J-TEA’s continued success to knowing what he sells. He advises potential vendors – new to the business – to shy away from keeping their focus too narrow. A secular focus means less market value. Tea isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, according to Chamberlain.
As for the future, J-TEA will soon unveil a new product/packaging line and a more interactive website. A possible second location is also in the early stages of planning.
J-TEA International, 2778 Friendly Street, Eugene, Ore. 97405
Learn more at: http://www.jteainternational.com