This is more of a bit of disconnected ramblings that I needed to get out since deciding to close down my company, Chicago Tea Garden. Hopefully you find what I’ve learned useful.
Seven years ago I left the United States to spend a month abroad in China. While in China, I learned about the rich tea culture there as I traveled from city to city. This was when my interest for tea began. Upon my return home, I purchased a cubic-meter crate full of Yixing pots and sold them through the coffee shop I was working at during college. I studied the Gong Fu tea ceremony and taught my customers at the coffee shop. We were selling tea from Metropolitan tea company at the time and I worked hard on weening my customers off of flavored teas. Before I started, this was how a typical customer “enjoyed” green tea: receive a paper cup filled with near-boiling water with a tea filter hanging out of it. The tea filter was stuffed so tightly with tea leaves that when wet, you can be sure than no hot water ever reached the center of the tea-leaf mass. After several minutes, the customer would remove the bag (some would leave it in) and add copious amounts of honey or sugar, or worse yet– artificial sweeteners.
Two years later, in 2007 I moved to Chicago and 6 months after moving to Chicago, I embarked on a 6 month long backpacking adventure in Southeast Asia with a friend. I studied the tea cultures in each region we traveled to. It was on this trip that I knew that I would be involved in the tea industry in America in some form or another. I began taking notes and arrived home in 2008 ready to hit the ground running. In 2009 I started this blog and my twitter account and began making friends in the tea industry. I quickly discovered that tea people were “my people” — we all seem to share a common easy-going nature and outlook on life. Near the end of 2009, I traveled to San Francisco to meet with James Norwood Pratt, Roy Fong, and David Lee Hoffman. These three men are responsible for much of the advancement of tea culture in America that is happening today. Not only was I lucky to befriend them, they urged and helped me to start my company. I began Chicago Tea Garden after spending two weeks throwing together an E-Commerce website using Drupal and Ubercart. The day I started Chicago Tea Garden, I was contacted by a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, he wanted to interview me, but not because of Chicago Tea Garden. He had taken notice of my all-out war on political nut-jobs using the hash-tag #tea on twitter for political tea-party uses. I had recently called out tea-party members, urging them to drop their usage of “our hashtag.” The article landed me in several national newspapers, along with some nice links to my new online shop.
I began holding tea tastings at my home in North Center, inviting people I had met on Twitter, Facebook and through my blog. They were held around my kitchen table, I filled the spaces to each one and decided I needed to get a warehouse. I found a 700sqft space in the Industrial Corridor for a mere $400/month. I moved all of my stock there and began holding more tastings. Over the past 2 years, hundreds of people have been to my warehouse to learn about tea. I have met so many amazing people through my tastings, I am still friends with many tea tasting attendees. I would say that nearly half of the people I hang out with I met one way or another through my tea business. I even met the love of my life, Katie Herman through the business. She was writing her master’s thesis on the history of the tea industry and came to interview me one evening at my warehouse, we went to the World Tea Expo together a few months later, and the rest is history.
I’ve always been tied to social media and tea. I’m a web developer by trade, so the web and social media are very familiar to me. A lot of people have asked me how I have so many followers on Twitter. I put together a killer social media toolkit that allows me to easily manage my presence while working full time and running the business. I use Tweetspinner to manage my following and unfollowing of people. For my tweets, I use BufferApp and it’s Chrome extension that allows me to add tweets to my “buffer” that it automatically tweets out at intervals that I choose. I use private lists on Twitter and Hootsuite to follow my friends and participate in conversations with them. Social media aside, I believe my blog to be the greatest source of business for the website, my most popular article, the “Hackers Guide to Tea” was read hundreds of thousands of times across the web and was picked up by Lifehacker and several other high-profile online publications. It was this article that led to me signing a book deal in 2011.
So let’s talk about sales for a moment. As you know, I’m shutting down Chicago Tea Garden, so I’m willing to share some interesting charts here (click on them to make them larger). Having a location-specific business name didn’t affect sales as much as one would think, here is a map of unique orders from March 2010 – June 6, 2012:
It’s also no secret that Competition Grade Tie Guan Yin was my best selling tea, here’s a closer look at what teas sold more than others:
No love for pu-erh! Though it is worth noting that some of these teas were on the website longer than others. How about sales? It’s hard to notice a trend when you look at sales by month, sales were indeed growing from year to year, but from a month to month basis, they were all over the board and were greatly affected by promotions, newsletters, advertising, social media campaigns and the weird one, weather!:
Notice the low points, June/July — right when the new teas arrive for the year, but also right when the weather is the hottest.
Something that a lot of people don’t know is that I have always held a full-time job while running Chicago Tea Garden, this meant fulfilling orders at the warehouse late at night, taking the tea orders home by bus, then bringing the orders to work the following day by train and shipping them out during lunch break. My career has taken off recently, and I have struggled with balancing a full time job, a business, a book, and my personal life. The least fruitful of the 4 was the business and it had to go, it was a super-hard decision to make, I’m not trying to make it sound easy, I just reached a breaking point with it. Perhaps the best thing about shutting down the business is that this is not my departure from the tea industry at all.
I’m hoping that the closing of Chicago Tea Garden will allow me to spend even more time participating in the tea community. I’m planning several tea education events in Chicago and the book is still underway. So to all of my wonderful tea friends, I’m back, let’s raise a cup!