Venture Changes the Way People Think About and Use Tea
Passion Meets Purpose
Oliver Rich carefully prepares a tray of ingredients that he will use to make unusual beverages, then pours generous servings of hot, frothy maple sugar black latte tea from a pitcher; micronized matcha mint tea with steamed milk from a sports drink-style shaker; and a sparkling chilled beverage made with strawberry, kiwi, and apple tea concentrate.
The scents and tastes are complex, and reflect just a few of the more than 120 blends of teas Rich has created since he launched Tea Guys LLC in 2002. Each tea has three flavors, and many people try several free samples in the Whately Tasting Room and Factory and learn new ways to prepare tea before making a purchase.
Indeed, it’s almost necessary because the array of choices is amazing: there are teas blended with chocolate, ginger, and bourbon; caramel, sea salt, and molasses; hibiscus, raspberry, and currant; as well as traditional varieties such as bergamot (Earl Grey) with lavender and vanilla.
The tea can be purchased in loose leaf form, specially created biodegradable bags which allow more flavor to escape and contain 200% more tea than an ordinary bag, K-Cups, micronized powder that provides additional health benefits, and liquid bags of concentrate that can be mixed by the spoonful with hot and cold water and milk or used to make cocktails or add flavor to food before or after it is cooked.
Creating this complex line of products was no small feat and has taken Rich years to master.
“There are more varieties of tea in China than grapes in France,” he said, as he shared information about the thousands of types of tea that stem from the Camellia sinensis plant and how growing it under different conditions produces different tastes.
“It took me years and years to perfect our tea, but we’re finally at the peak,” he went on. “We’re changing what it means to be a tea company and trying to change the way people view tea, consume it, and prepare it.”
Rich grew up in a family where food was very important, and cooked alongside his mother from the time he was a young child.
“I always liked creating things, but a lot of what I do is going back to basics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his Swedish and Italian grandparents made everything by hand.
It’s a method that has always been part of his business, and he recalled a time when he stayed up for 24 hours to fill an order for tea bags from his kitchen, punching holes in tags, cutting strings, and heat-sealing them to the bags.
Today, Rich and his wife Emily, who has been part of the business from the beginning and left a full-time job to join him as operations manager in 2007, can still be found in their Whately factory at all hours doing things by hand, where blends are crafted daily in small batches.
“This is truly a labor of love,” she said. “There are limited options for premium tea products that are interesting, but we bring something different to the table and are trying to expand the ways people use tea as well as their experience with it.”
That strategy, combined with a smorgasbord of offerings, has led to success, and Emily says people have come to the tasting room with a spouse who isn’t partial to tea, but has a much different outlook by the time they leave the room.
Trial and Error
The inspiration to start this venture came during a meeting between Oliver Rich and a friend who had gotten together at a tea shop in Cambridge to talk about ideas for starting a business.
Rich noticed a salesperson measuring out rote grutze tea, which he knew was named after a German dessert, and it sparked what he called “an epiphany.”
“I had never seen this type of tea, and realized I could not only make tea differently than anyone else, but could make it better by putting different ingredients into it,” he said, adding that the majority of grocery stores at the time stocked only mass-produced tea bags that are filled with tea dust, or fannings, that don’t have much flavor.
His friend was highly skeptical of the idea, and the feeling was mirrored by others who told Oliver he was crazy, but after conducting research, visiting tea shops throughout New England, talking to suppliers, and going to Asian markets to find unusual ingredients, he began creating new blends in his kitchen, and his friend agreed to partner with him.
Rich’s focus was on quality, and he began to line up customers, which increased in number when a family member who sold soap to bed-and-breakfast operations shared a list of contacts.
But because Rich’s business partner lived in Cambridge and he and Emily were doing everything by hand, the business took a long time to get off the ground.
“We were so ahead of the market that customers weren’t willing to pay for what we were making,” he told BusinessWest.
In 2003 Tea Guys moved into Eastworks in Easthampton, and a website was launched, which marked a turning point and led to new wholesale customers, which have long accounted for the bulk of their sales.
Rich’s partner eventually left, but he and Emily worked tirelessly and continued to experiment by mixing teas with freshly ground ingredients to create unique flavor combinations.
Tea Guys moved from Easthampton to Florence, and when the recession hit, Rich downsized into a 3,300-square-foot space in Hatfield. But the customer base has continued to grow, especially in recent years. Sales doubled in 2014 and 2015, and the company is on track to do $5 million in business this year.
Two years ago, Rich and Emily took a leap of faith and moved into their current, 10,000-square-foot location in Whately, but he had to take out a large loan to buy equipment and hire more staff.
Although he tends to be risk-averse, the move has paid off, and today the business boasts 18 employees. But he continues to serve as the so-called master blender, using teas from China, Sri Lanka, Japan, and India, and ingredients that are fresh and exotic, including cocoa from Ecuador and Guatemala and maple syrup and chunks of maple sugar from a nearby sugaring farm.
“Most companies just add flavor to a base, but I look at the vast varieties and have added more than 300 ingredients to about 30 teas that I matched to complement their flavors,” Rich noted.
The company’s biggest break was realized two years ago when Big Y World Class Supermarkets placed Tea Guys products in its Fresh Acres store in Springfield. The conversation with Big Y had started in 2007 with Bill Eichorn, who championed the products, and helped the company develop a whole-leaf tea program that has expanded into 13 of their stores and continues to grow.
“We’re still an unknown, but it shows we are at the tipping point,” Rich said, noting that large displays at Big Y contain bins of whole-leaf tea that allow people to experience the complex aromas that seep into the taste of the 40 blends that Big Y carries.
And since this type of tea is a new experience for many, Tea Guys offers individual tea bags for $1.49 so people can sample different flavors.
The company has come a long way over the last 14 years, and its products are used in frozen yogurts and served by restaurants, colleges and universities, and bed-and-breakfast operations. They are also a mainstay for national and international entrepreneurs who make their living selling the tea or holding tea parties.
“There has never been a mass market for our tea, but every second of every day somewhere in the world, someone is drinking it. It’s an affordable luxury,” Rich said.
“Tea is one of the products our country was founded on, but most people don’t fully appreciate the time and devotion that goes into planting, picking, and blending it,” he went on. “We have reinvented it, and were the first to combine different varieties of tea with ingredients like chocolate, nuts, and popcorn that you can see in the tea,” he continued. “But it took heart and passion to do so.”
It also took persistence and a belief that a quality product from the heart of New England would become something people could and would enjoy every day. And that’s exactly what has happened, one delightful cup at a time.