The Tea Retail 'Honeymoon' Is Over: What Tea Businesses Must Do First to Survive

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Insights on Surviving and Thriving in the COVID-19 Era

Think back to your last “new” relationship, job or company. The first few weeks or months were crazy, exciting and full of new experiences. Phrases such as “The boss loves me,” “We gazed into each other’s eye as we walked along the beach” or “The work is SO invigorating” may have rolled off your tongue like the prefect phrase during a standup routine. This glorious season is called “The Honeymoon.”

Life’s a journey and at some point, there’s a new hire, a customer service nightmare, and you have to fly home to work the next day. Novelty wears off. Granted, terroir variation and the fluidity of consumer demand slightly buffer reality for a tea professional, by providing constant mountains to conquer. This pursuit is the lifeblood of true entrepreneurialism in which the battle cry is: “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” However, “unexpected” even “unfair” events are capable of converting this exhilarating climb into an exacerbating fight.

COVID-19 is that unexpected. Personally, and professionally, my fourth quarter 2019 was extremely challenging. Fortunately, everything stabilized by February and café sales grew by 29 percent in 2020 over 2019. Though unknown at the time, calamity was our COVID-19 primer and emboldened us to face the new struggle with creativity. During shut down, we ferociously attacked social media, delivery methods and packaging, allowing us to replace 65 percent of our revenue regardless of our closed physical location. Adding to our sense of accomplishment, a successful income-generating, community-impacting campaign leveraged tea to provide hope and courage to hundreds of families throughout our community to emotionally battle isolation and sickness. Slowly, our community began to reopen retail at the end of May. June’s one percent sales growth 2020 over 2019 provided a timid glimmer of hope. There were signs everywhere that this reopening honeymoon could maybe be short lived. Regardless, our COVID-19 honeymoon tagline was and is: “We’re going to make it!”

The Only Certainty over the Past Several Month Has Been Uncertainty
The COVID honeymoon started as shut down transitioned to restrictions. Our café is in a mall. Since we moved to the mall five years ago, we’ve mentored hundreds of students and increased our business fourfold in our current location. COVID is an accelerant of retail change. The smoldering trend away from indoor malls became a ragging fire in six short months. It’s now more common place to stare down the barrel of a “For Lease” sign than attend a business ribbon-cutting ceremony.  As second quarter survivors, we are now faced with a stimulus fueled honeymoon, quickly coming to an end. For decades, retail in general has depended on Black Friday and fourth quarter sales to shore up the annual financial statements. Our new reality is next quarter promises tea retailers more uncertainty than fiscal relief. Supply chain strain and disruption adds an extra layer of complexity.

Honest and simple communication can help newlywed couples survive post-honeymoon. To survive post-COVID, small tea businesses will have to follow similar guidance. John Maxwell writes, “Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.” The concept of forward in these tremulous times seems almost like a pipe dream. In lure of a crystal ball, here is a challenge. Is your tea business’s communication honest and simple?

First, start by being honest. Lack of forward motion is business death. Right now, failure is not the enemy, complacency is. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Coronavirus Impact Poll published July 29, 2020, reveals 58 percent of small business owners are fearful that if they close they will not reopen.  If you want to survive you MUST fight. There’s a silver lining. As a tea business right now, we can try new things, products and methods with a lower cost of failure, as everyone is trying something new. A cautionary note is that more is not better. A honeymoon is not a last stand; it’s the beginning of something new. Unacceptable failure is refusing to recognize the current economic situation and make change. The tag line of a dying business is: “We don’t do things like that!”

Simple communication is more difficult. Cafes providing customers with a clear view of how their products improve life generate sales. Conversely, confused customers don’t spend as much. Truly successful brands have mastered the art of clarity. For example, a business focus could include, “We do Japanese teas” or “We do functional teas” or “We’re a wholesale house.” Seasoned entrepreneurial mountaineers constantly add gear to their backpack as tea shop owners add products and services to their cafes. After years of climbing, an unclarified backpack becomes too heavy with old gear to successfully conquer another mountain. Our board of directors recognized our arrival at that point, so we took several weeks and methodically evaluated everything; specifically, what makes us special, what makes us successful and what will carry us into the future. Figuratively, we unloaded our backpack so we could attempt to summit the mountain of retail survival. This painful adventure involved admitting mistakes and eliminating anything that didn’t match our new clarified focus. How many teas, programs and accessories did we really need to offer? As a not-for-profit tea shop, we operate on a double bottom line – profitability and community impact define our success. Our simplified communication is summed up by three simple phrases: 1) We make the best local tea. 2) We create outstanding experiences. 3) We encourage and challenge students.

Any National Geographic Channel survival show starts with a crisis, realigns with prioritizing what to do first, and finishes with the relief of rescue. The most critical survival step is what to do first. Cafes, which may have survived the initial crisis of closure, are now faced with an almost more difficult reality of remaining alive. Death by three helps a survivor make decisions. You die after three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.  The effectiveness of the phrase “Death by 3” is actionable simplicity. Wilderness survivors would love a cup of hot tea, but it’s hard to enjoy that cup if you freeze to death. For our business, we have aggressively started communicating how we improve the lives of our customers. Additionally, we have honestly communicated to our staff the challenges which our team faces and have invited them to become a part of the solution. If our staff provides every customer with an “outstanding experience” with tea, transaction total, frequency and retention will increase. Now our staff asks the question, “Will personal cell phone usage provide our customers with outstanding experiences?” If the answer to any one of our three phrases is “No,” the activity, product or program is cut – even if it’s a good thing.  Honest and simple communication is what we needed to do first. You need to be able to answer this question quickly and simply: “What must my tea business do first to survive?”

It's Not Too Late!
Consider these steps:

1. Begin working through what makes your business special, successful and sustainable today. Remember, the world changed since you wrote your business plan.

2. Simplify all the ideas you generated through step one, and then develop short, easy-to-remember phrases which will not confuse you, your team or your customers about how you make their world a better place.

3. Using these phrases, start with the most critical survival needs of your business, then start fighting!

4. Remember, small business owners are special people with a resilient skillset.

Honest and simple communication is the key to a successful relationship, job and company. It will help you decisively create your future.


Social entrepreneur Kevin Christiansen, Café Barnabas, challenges tea professionals to dream big. His dream, Café Barnabas, was voted Best of Topeka for its innovative tea. His vision for youth development earned him recognition as one of Topeka’s Top 20 professionals under 40. Kevin's latest project, VERGE, is a 6,000 square foot student center focused on academic achievement, tea education and cultural enhancement. Learn more at CafeBarnabas.org.