Q&A: Deborah Raab of Tea-For-All and the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association

Deborah Raab (left) cupping tea. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

Deborah Raab, founder of Tea-For-All, has a personal love for the rituals of tea. In fact, it’s tea rituals and the culture of tea that inspired her to build her family-run tea business, which is based in central New Jersey.

Tea-For-All is managed by Raab and her husband and business partner, Mike. Their business is fueled by their shared passion and appreciation for the artisanship and hard work that goes into producing each individual type of tea, as well as their enthusiasm for sharing the cultures of tea.

Deborah Raab preparing to pluck tea. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

An Industry Leader
Early in her tea career, Raab completed the Specialty Tea Institute’s (STI) Certified Tea Professional program, and she’s gone on to become an STI Tea Mentor, teaching the coursework to corporate tea employees and up-and-coming tea business entrepreneurs.

She also serves as president of the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association, or MATBA (her husband is a past president, too), and she says she’s been a member since the beginnings of her business. “Those relationships with other tea business owners [through the association] has been helpful in inspiration and openness to new ideas, best business practices, and ongoing tea related education,” she notes.

In addition, Raab is active in the tea community, as she participates in the US League of Tea Growers Association and participates in numerous tea industry events.

Deborah Raab with her husband, Mike Raab, in the Longjing Village in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

A 10-Year Anniversary
Tea-For-All – which Raab operates under the tag, “Let us help discover your Tea!” – celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year. The business offers teas online and through local retailers, presents classes and events, and serves-up drinks at its own tea bar and retails shop at a local famer’s market.

World Tea News chats with Raab to learn more about Tea-For-All and the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association, and to gather her insights on the industry.

Question: Hi, Deborah. Thanks for your time. First off, how did you get started in the tea industry? What drew you to the tea community?

This is always a fun question for me because my tea business days started later in life. I had a long career in corrections, where I started as a social worker just out of college. Later, I became a program director and before retirement an auditor of program contractors. Tea was a place of comfort for me, away from the hustle and bustle and stress. It was something that mom and I shared together. Something that helped me stay grounded. Just a couple of years before retirement, I began taking classes and discovered the many different facets of the business and a passion developed to find my place in this diverse world of tea. As I was living in Trenton, N.J.  – in the area where the second Battle of Trenton was fought and won – I thought it would be fun to host a few Martha Washington Teas, and later I started a church fundraising project of holding an annual tea. Elizabeth Knight [a tea author] spoke at one of these teas and planted the seed that I was destined to do something with tea.

The following year, I took my first tea class from Bruce and Shelly Richardson and formed a business, not knowing yet what angle that business would take. My husband Mike, while not a tea guy at the time, supported me and we decided that we would do what it takes to learn everything we could about the industry. We headed out to the World Tea Conference + Expo that June and enrolled in the Tea Business Boot Camp and the World Origin Tasting Tour before attending the conference. It was there that I was invited to a meet-and-greet event from the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association. From there it was off to get a certification from the Specialty Tea Institute. At every step, it was always the people involved in the industry and Mike that made me want to continue to strive forward and develop my business.

The Raabs at the Yibin Int'l Culture Tourism Festival in China. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

Question: Let’s talk about your business, Tea-For-All. What really inspired you to launch your tea business, and did you create the business you originally imagined?

Answer: There were so many people that I met during that first year of discovery that kept me inspired to launch my business. I never imagined a world where you have a passion, you have an idea and people just jump in line to help you develop your concepts and bring them to fruition. This is my experience with the Tea World.

As I mentioned, I was not sure where I wanted to find myself in the tea business. I flirted with the idea of opening a big retail store or a fancy tearoom, but the timing in my life was not going to allow either of these things to happen. I started quite small and teamed up with an existing tearoom that loved doing the afternoon teas but had never really developed a retail gift shop. I decided that I would begin to develop my brand and sell my own tea and tea accessories. This was great while Mike and I were continuing with our certification classes. He was still working; I had retired and was following my passion.

To fast forward, Mike retired and finished his certifications and was ready to jump on board with the business. We added tea classes, vendor events and farmers markets to the mix, before we found our home at the Trenton Farmers Market, where we opened a tea bar and retail tea shop.

Question: What kind of teas and products does Tea-For-All offer?

Answer: Our customer base is quite a diverse group. We do our best to offer products that appeal to our local community of tea lovers and likers. Primarily, we offer loose leaf tea and herbal products, as well as brewing accessories and some condiments such as curds, honey and spices. We do bag some of our teas but encourage all of customers toward the full leaf experience. Especially during this pandemic, we have learned how much herbal solutions mean to our customers and have increased the variety of botanical, herbal and wellness tisanes.

During market days, we provide a variety of to-go tea, latte’s, mulled ciders and hot chocolate. We provide education to any customer or curiosity seeker on the many facets of tea including the history, culture, processing and brewing techniques.

The size of our space does not permit seating and drinking at the bar currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions, but we still try and maintain that sense of welcome and story sharing that we enjoyed during the pre-pandemic days. There is reminiscing and words of encouragement and hope that are exchanged while the orders are being prepared. The only conversation rules are it stays positive. So, I guess you could say that one of our services includes providing a place where you can still connect with people during these days of isolation and have a friendly chat about tea. In a nutshell, we treat customers the old-fashioned way; the way we like to be treated.

Adapting to the times. Deborah and Mike Raab at Tea-For-All. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

Question: What creative marketing or promotional efforts have you done to generate new customers?

Answer: We do a lot of local marketing. Word of mouth and small-business to small-business communication has helped to grow our business. Open air pop-up and farmers markets have been a large part of getting our name out there. In the beginning, we spent lots of money on print advertisement but to no avail.

We found that being out in the community talking about our business, finding out what other businesses in the area are doing, and working together with those businesses to build off each other’s successes, has been a tremendous help. Becoming members of local business and professional organizations also helps. We come up with promotions around Hot Tea Month, holidays, new product launches and put the word out with our network and through Social Media.

Pre-COVID-19, we entertained book clubs, held regular tasting events and tea and activity events. Introducing porch deliveries – spread by word-of-mouth very quickly – increased our business by quite a bit. We recently launched a Monthly Tea club with Zoom tastings with our members. These are the things that have opened doors for us and have brought us additional business and referrals.

The Tea-For-All tea bar at the farmer's market. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

Question: How has participating in the farmer’s markets supported the success of your business?

Answer: Attending these various markets has proven to boost our visibility and expand our market, more than we had ever imagined. Customers at the community farmers markets choose to shop small business and do a lot of cross-promoting. It is through these markets that led us into having our products on the shelves of various boutiques, coffee and gourmet shops and even florists.

Question: In addition to selling teas, Tea-For-All offers classes and events. Tell us about those. And what kind of interest do you have from your local community when it comes to these classes and events?

Answer: Tea 101 “type” classes are always popular. There are so many ways to present them and I love those “aha” moments when the participants learn something new! When we present learning experiences with flights of a particular tea type there is always a surprise or two in the flight that just WOW the groups to keep it interesting, we tell the stories about the teas presented. Tea-For-All hosts book clubs, church groups, individuals and other organizations that enjoy tea AND activities. We especially love tying the event type to tea in a way that the group may not have experienced. For instance, an origami lesson paired with Japanese teas and treats, or a tea/book club discussion coupled with a tasting and history of the teas mentioned throughout the book. Yoga or meditation and tea is always fun! We look forward to serving our constituents with programs offered around tea and they enjoy coming for the experiences we offer.

Question: How has COVID-19 affected your tea business and how have you managed over the last 10 months?

Answer: We opened our tea bar and retail shop four months before the mandated business shutdowns due to the pandemic. While we were technically allowed to remain open because of our business classification, we elected to close for the month of April. During this time, we strategized on a way to re-open safely for ourselves and our customers.

During our closure, we began porch deliveries and off-hour curbside pick-up options for our customers. Our online business saw a significant uptick as people were home and searching for not only healthy beverage options, but small and local businesses to support. Once we reopened the tea bar and shop, we halted food service – except for special occasions and holiday carry-out – and maintained beverage carry-out and an expanded retail section.

Located in a year-round indoor farmers market – somewhat unusual for this part of the country – that has been continually operating since 1939, community support of the market and its farmers, tenants and vendors has been a blessing for us during this unusual time.

Farmers can now bring in produce not grown on their own farms, helping to increase their product offerings, allowing customers to avoid those dreaded supermarket trips. How would our growth have been different had it not been for the pandemic? We do not know and do not waste time thinking about it. We choose to “hustle” instead. We are thankful that we can offer a quality product that our customers appreciate and that will help us to continue to grow.

Question: What challenges did you have in the early days of launching your business?

Answer: I believe the most difficult hurdle for me was making the transitions from tea business idea to tea business hobby to tea business. Thankfully, I had developed a network of tea professionals along the way that helped with some of the hard decisions and offered the challenges to cross the hurdles necessary to make a business work.

Question: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who want to launch a tea business?

Answer: Stay tuned in to the industry trends. Get your education on tea in whichever way is best for you, because customers will test you. Find mentors in the business, they are your lifeline. Be flexible and be willing to adjust. Do a complete budget analysis and do your best to stay within that budget. Develop your business around you and your personality. Follow your passion. Work hard and focus on getting results. And did I mention have fun on the journey!

A Tea-For-All event. Photo: Courtesy of Tea-For-All.

Question: Tell us about the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association. What is its mission and who can become a member?

Answer: We became members of the Mid Atlantic Tea Business Association – MATBA – while attending our first World Tea Conference + Expo about 11 years ago. The membership to MATBA is open to anyone in the tea business. We have importers, blenders, tea rooms, retailers and tea educators.

The businesses from the Mid-Atlantic states – Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington D.C. and West Virginia – make up the in-region portion of our membership. But we also have members from all over the country and the Bahamas. While all members enjoy the benefits of membership, in-region members may hold office and vote on policy matters.

The organization was founded to advance the knowledge of tea and the business of tea through networking and educational opportunities for tea entrepreneurs. Through regular visits to tea rooms and businesses in the region, we find opportunities to discover new trends, exchange ideas and discuss some of the challenges of being in business. We share and learn from one another, but most important support one another in their tea journey. We have had renown speakers at some of our events, we have traveled to member businesses as far as the herbal farms in the Bahamas together. We look for every opportunity to learn and grow our businesses.

Currently, we are offering monthly Zoom sessions that provide educational and business support. We will continue these sessions post pandemic, as well, because our out-of-region members are a valuable part of our tea community.

Question: What are some of the successes of the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association?

Answer: First and foremost, I think that it is a major accomplishment for a business association of like-businesses to remain together and productive for 15 years. We owe this to our founding mothers’, whose vision was that there is enough business for everyone if we work together to help each other grow. We listen to all our members because everyone has something to offer. New businesses with young ideas are so refreshing and inspiring, while the more experienced businesses offer wisdom and guidance.

The core strength of MATBA is that we do not need to compete with one another even though we are in a way all competitors. I think our recent Hot Tea Month Promotion is a great indicator of that. Many of our members offered a piece of their business to be featured – a recipe or a snippet of their services. Every few days, MATBA posted an introduction to the featured business of the day with photos and a link to that business and their offering for the project. Members then shared these posts to their personal and business social media pages. This was a fun activity for those following the project and an affirmation of the backbone of MATBA. And no, I am not afraid of losing customers because of this promotion – I feel comfortable in my brand and my business – as we all should.

Question: What tea countries have you travelled to and what did you discover about tea from those trips?

Answer: Let us start here in the United States, while not considered a tea country yet, we think it is important to become familiar with the growers located right here in the U.S. With tea growing in an increasing number of states, we have visited some of tea farms in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Hawaii. Propagation and growing methods are still being fine-tuned, but some of these farms are creating some great products. And who does not love a day or two in the field then in the factory producing a final tea product!

On our trips to China, we were able to connect with growers, factories, tea museums, and a university in Zhejiang having both a school of tea science and a school of tea culture. One of our visits included two international tea conferences, which took us behind the scenes at several tea factories, the spring festivals and a dragon well making contest! The international tea festivals abroad give opportunities to meet and learn from leading tea experts.

We are looking forward to Taiwan, which was on the 2020 bucket list and Japan as next-up tea journeys.

Question: You recently attended U.C. Davis’ 2021 Global Tea Initiative Colloquium, a digital event. What did you learn from that?

Answer: The UC Davis 2021 Global Tea Initiative was one of the many ways I have tried to stay connected with the tea world. Thankfully, there have been many virtual conversations on tea offered not only through UC Davis, but through many organizations worldwide including the World Tea Conference + Expo, The Specialty Tea Institute, the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada, just to name a few. My two favorite UC Davis presentations were, of course, the discussion with Lisa See and Linda Louie and the GABA tea presentation, which I find curiously interesting.

Question: Thanks for your time! Last question: What encouraging advice do you have for other businesses in the tea industry that may be facing challenges during the pandemic?

Answer: Make the decisions that are right for you and your business. Continually question, how can you reinvent yourself and keep your followers engaged while we all go through these difficult times? Being in business will always offer challenges and hurdles to cross. Unfortunately, this past year has been more trying than ever.

My best advice is to get engaged with other tea people if you are not already, somewhere that you can find support, review best practices, and get new ideas. Most importantly keep sharp on your tea knowledge and create a tea journey that you enjoy!

To learn more about Tea-For-All, visit Tea-For-All.com. To learn about the Mid-Atlantic Tea Business Association, visit matba.org.