World Tea News - Staying Relevant in 2020: a Q&A with Maria Uspenski, Founder & CEO of The Tea Spot
By Aaron Kiel for World Tea News
World Tea News recently spoke with industry expert Maria Uspenski, founder and CEO of Boulder, Colorado-based The Tea Spot, about the upcoming World Tea Virtual Summit, staying relevant in 2020 in product development and messaging, tea sales during the pandemic, trends and more.
Uspenski’s company is a leading producer of handcrafted, whole leaf teas and the creator of Steepware – the housewares tools that make loose tea easy. The company’s vision to modernize the loose-leaf tea experience has held steadfast since the for-profit philanthropic company was founded by Uspenski in 2004, a cancer survivor drawn to the health benefits of leaf tea during her recovery. The company’s model of social entrepreneurship incorporates its mission to foster health and wellness through loose-leaf tea with its 10% for Wellness program. Ten percent of all profits are donated in-kind to cancer and community wellness programs.
Uspenski is also the author of Cancer Hates Tea, and she was recognized as the “Top Tea Health Advocate” at the 2017 World Tea Conference + Expo. She is often featured as a social entrepreneur and certified tea and fitness nutrition expert in numerous media outlets, in addition to be a sought-after speaker on tea and wellness.
Question: The Tea Spot is participating in the upcoming World Tea Virtual Summit, taking place Oct. 12-14, 2020. What are you looking forward to the most about the event?
Answer: Just getting together, albeit virtually, with all my industry colleagues. I was absolutely glued to my computer screen for the full day of presentations from around the world, presented by Shabnam Weber [president of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada] on World Tea Day in April. One of the things I love most about the premium tea industry is how we’re all supportive of each other. Whether we’re suppliers, customers or competitors, everyone works to promote the industry, as well as each other’s businesses. Tea attracts people who believe genuinely in the goodness of the product, and what it can do for people, and my belief is that this is what helps to create synergy between us all.
Question: You’ll be presenting a session on “Staying Relevant in 2020 in Product Development and Messaging.” What will you cover and how important is this topic right now?
Answer: 2020 has been a year like none of us have ever experienced, and no matter what your business is, it’s not been business as usual. Whether your business is up, down or flat, we’ve all experienced stress, adaptation and uncertainty. I’ll be discussing how to stay relevant in 2020, with actual examples of adaptations and pivots – large and small – that we’ve needed to make, for my business as well as others working in tea. My hope is that people will get some new ideas about how to innovate in line with current changing needs, and speak to the desires and concerns their customers have right now.
Question: In addition to selling teas and tea wares online, The Tea Spot supplies wholesale loose-leaf teas to retailers – from tea shops and teahouses to gourmet and natural product shops and more. From your perspective, how are these types of businesses managing during the pandemic, and how does The Tea Spot offer support?
Answer: Needless to say, we all want to pitch in and help. How we’ve addressed lightening the burden for some of our wholesale customers is by making our products more affordable. We’ve offered deeper discounts in 2020, and have no minimum orders on tea. For our custom Steepware products, we have lowered the minimum order quantities by over 50 percent. We’ve also staffed up on customer service, in order to offer greater support and the fastest possible response times.
Question: Is The Tea Spot seeing more people discovering, purchasing and enjoying tea during the pandemic?
Answer: We’ve definitely seen a strong uptick in retail tea purchases. I think this is attributable to several factors. First, people have brought their tea drinking into their homes, from work or school or the office. And consumers aren’t going out to enjoy tea or coffee with friends and colleagues nearly as much. So, they’re making their tea at home. And at home, they may be more likely to make a premium cup of tea, rather than the latte they might have been picking up on their commute into work. Also, people are craving tea in this time of Coronavirus, for its perceived and documented health benefits. We’re all working to reinforce our family’s wellness and we’re looking to reduce stress and enjoy a calming moment. Tea is able to address many of these needs.
Question: What’s your best advice or words of encouragement to the tea community right now, especially for retail businesses that sell tea from providers like The Tea Spot?
Answer: Who would have thought that in this difficult year of the pandemic, tea would gain momentum. But it has, and for all the right reasons. Your customers want tea now. If we listen and respond to their needs, our tea businesses can support them in a healthy and affordable way.
Question: What’s new with The Tea Spot?
Answer: We have taken this year to buckle down and work on building up our infrastructure. Most of this spring we were working with a 25 percent reduction in workforce, because we sent people home to quarantine with perhaps an overabundance of caution. Our non-essential employees are all still working remotely (this includes me). That placed a tremendous amount of pressure on our essential workers who were still able to work every day. So this summer, we expanded our cramped space (our next door neighbors vacated at an opportune time for us) to allow for better organization and workflow, and hired additional staff, including a process engineer. We’re now almost at the point where we could handle another unexpected uptick in workload, but we’re not wishing that on ourselves! What we are looking forward to is being able to focus on some creative endeavors and new white label opportunities in 2021.
Question: The Tea Spot recently partnered with FEW Spirits on the release of FEW Immortal Rye, a cask-strength FEW Straight Rye Whiskey that features 8 Immortals Dancong oolong tea from The Tea Spot. Tell us about that innovative partnership?
Answer: FEW Spirits reached out to us, after they’d searched for and tasted different teas for this project. We were so excited to be a part of this collaboration, as both our companies are beverage geeks who are passionate about the fine nuances and quality of our products. Craft beverage aficionados span both categories of spirits and tea. We create lots of infused cocktail recipes with our teas, and having such a beautiful product which infuses a Rye with our beloved 8 Immortals Oolong is a real honor and treat!
Question: How else is The Tea Spot innovating?
Answer: At the very start of the pandemic, we marshaled our resources to create a supportive tea, which has become one of our top selling herbals – the Flu Fighter tea. It’s a soothing evening blend, which many of us enjoy regularly. We also continue to work with many partners in the adaptogenic space, which is growing actively. This is a great opportunity for us to get innovative with functional blends. I’ve also developed several new Steepware products this year, which we’ve so excited to launch this holiday season and next spring.
Question: The Tea Spot has a line of functional teas, which are very popular. Is this a trend that’s here to stay?
Answer: From our perspective, this is surely an aspect of the tea market that won’t be going away. The more consumers learn about tea’s benefits, the more likely they are to turn to tea for specific functional support.
Question: What other tea trends are developing?
Answer: Sparkling teas seem to be everywhere now. Coca-Cola and Nestle now have sparkling teas, Oprah has DIY sparkling tea recipes in the October 2020 issue of her magazine. It’s a good trend for tea!
Question: What do you think is the most important issue in the tea industry right now, and what’s your advice for the community?
Answer: Sourcing has become very complicated this year, and it’s surely not going to get any easier. Due to social and environmental instabilities at origin, premium tea is becoming more scarce and far more expensive. It could disappear altogether as a category if these trends continue to snowball.
Question: Thanks for your time and we look forward to seeing you at the World Tea Virtual Summit. Any final thoughts?
Answer: As difficult as this year has been for us at The Tea Spot, it’s also been our most exciting year. To see that our product is both supportive to our customer community and recession proof, have been testaments to the enduring goodness of the tea leaf. Anyone who can afford to buy a beverage can afford to drink tea. We’re all craving it in the time of Coronavirus. This moment presents an opportunity to step up the responsibility in messaging with respect to tea’s benefits and re-evaluate aspects of our tea businesses. Some of the changes we’ve seen in this year will endure long after the pandemic is behind us.
To hear more from Maria Uspenski, register for the World Tea Virtual Summit, taking place Oct. 12-14, 2020.