Tea & Post-Pandemic Success: Tips for a Return to 'Normal'

Over the past few months, we have continued to see signs of life, returning to what we used to consider “normal.” Mandates that were passed last year to help protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic are starting to be rescinded, and many people are more comfortable returning to activities that, until last March, were a part of their regular routines.

What does that mean for business, especially teahouses, tea cafes and tea/coffee shops? While we hope to see an increase of guests returning to us, we also must take the lessons that we learned during the pandemic and incorporate them into our current business practices. Because, let’s face it, during these difficult times, we have all learned and adjusted to be able to stay in business.

Here are some things to think about when returning to more normal business activities with your brick-and-mortar tea business.

Tip No. 1 – Continue to Embrace New Customers

While the pandemic inevitably caused many guests to exude extreme caution about going out and maintaining their normal activities, a whole other group were learning about and supporting businesses in their local area. If you were lucky like we were during the shutdown (our business is the The White Heron Tea & Gifts and Driftwood Tea Company), we enjoyed meeting new customers that hadn’t visited us or utilized our products before. These new customers were often looking for unique teas, or even wanting to learn more about tea because they had read or heard about its many health benefits. This provided us an opportunity to teach them about tea and work with them to find their perfect beverage match.

Even though life is returning to some pre-COVID normalcy, it is still important to continue to embrace these new customers, even when our existing customers return. Taking the time with new customers is an important aspect to continue growing your client base. And while we may have had more time during the shutdown to embrace new customers, with life returning to normal, it’s easy to get caught up again in our daily hustle and bustle. Remember to slow down with your new customers, teach them, and help them to appreciate and foster their love of tea. By taking your time with them and continuing to embrace them, they too will become your seasoned customers.

Tip No. 2 – Welcome Back Previous Customers with Open Arms

It’s true that during the shutdown many of our current guests were reluctant to venture out. Even though they knew us well, their instinct was to stay away and protect themselves. While that can be frustrating for business owners who were just trying to survive, now is the time to be compassionate towards those customers because they were doing what they felt best for their safety.

As our pre-pandemic customers are starting to venture out, it’s important for us to welcome them back to our business. Yes, it’s true that they may not have been a vital part of your being able to stay in business during the shutdown, but they undoubtedly played a role in your pre-pandemic success, and they will play a part in your future success, too.

In our business, we found that many of our guests, though not coming into our physical location for over a year, continued to follow and support us on social media. And even more importantly, they supported us through good thoughts and prayers. Your existing customers may not have known how to support you during the shutdown, but they will be the first to come back and support you now. Be sure to welcome them back with open arms, ask how they have been over the past year, be supportive of their decision to be cautious about going out, and assure them you are here for them now. Showing support for their well-being will show them that you care about them and will encourage them to continue to visit you now that they are comfortable going out.

Tip No. 3 – Don’t Rush to Return to “Normal” Too Quickly

It may seem like everything closed rather quickly last spring, and it has been a slow return to business as usual. This may be a good thing because it allows us to ensure that we are continuing to keep guests and staff safe. While many guests are ready to return to some sort of normalcy, they are definitely more aware of their surroundings and how things operate. They are also particularly aware of how many people are in one space, as well as social distancing.

I have to admit that, in my travels, I have enjoyed not having another person next to me, breathing down my neck. I understand that we have a need to return to full capacity and there are ways to do that without being in each other’s space. In our establishment, we are still able to space tables out but we can put ourselves at capacity. Through careful planning of where we seat parties of different sizes, we can ensure guests aren’t on “top of each other.” By doing this, we have found that our guests continue to enjoy having more room around them.

One thing we were able to do with smaller capacities was to focus on a more personalized experience. With less guests we were able to spend more times with the ones that we had, and we developed better relationships with them. Our goal now is to the relationship building as our focus and not return to normal, where we have limited time with guests because we are working to host so many. Finding that balance has become a new “normal” for us and, therefore, we are not in a rush to return to the “old normal” just yet.

Tip No. 4 – Evaluate What Worked for Your Business During the Pandemic

It’s no surprise that many business owners had to try different tactics to continue to generate revenue during the pandemic. Some of those tactics may have served a temporary purpose, but some could also prove successful if adopted for the long-term.

For example, when I first opened our tearoom, guests would ask me if I would provide an option to take our Afternoon Tea to Go. That question was often met with an astounding “no.” Not only did I think that it would take traffic from my tearoom, but I also had doubts about the beautiful experience that could be created at home if we weren’t there to make it perfect. All of that changed with the pandemic. We were not able to host guests in our tea room for several months, so our next best option was to offer it to-go. Putting an afternoon tea service together – to go – took us a few weeks, as we wanted to ensure it was presented nicely for our guests. We worked to package our tea sandwiches, scones and desserts in nice packaging, so that when guests opened it at home, it was pretty and reminded them of the experience in our tearoom. Our guests were excited to have this option for tea, and it proved successful for us at a time that we couldn’t seat guests.

In evaluating what programs we started during our shutdown, including out Afternoon Tea To-Go, we were able to determine which ones we could continue to offer, and which ones we were better off cancelling. Now that all the restrictions have been lifted in our area, we chose to continue to offer our Afternoon Tea To-Go because some of our guests have enjoyed setting up their tea service at home and letting us do “the cooking,” and some guests still feel more comfortable in their own surroundings.  Continuing this service has not had any negative impact on our bottom line. In fact, it has helped improve it.

It’s important to look at each aspect of your business from pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and post-pandemic, to determine what works best for your business in the future. Just don’t be surprised if you find something you said you would never do ends up being successful. Running a successful business is all about adaptation in all climates, and those who have weathered this storm can look for even more success in the future.

Tip #5 – Learn from the Pandemic Experience

One of the most important tips to take away from the past year-and-a-half is the need for businesses to continuously re-evaluate and adapt. It is no secret that – after being in business for several years – we have become comfortable with where we are and what we do. We often live by the adage that “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. While that may have been true for the past, it is no longer valid for the future. The pandemic has taught us to be flexible in what we offer and what we can do for our guests. Every experience we go through as business owners has the ability for us to learn.

What did you learn from working through and adjusting to pandemic protocols? And how can you use that to be better prepared and better serve guests in the future?

We must remember, as business owners, to constantly learn from our experiences.

As we pull the curtain on the past and look forward to our new post-pandemic world, we need to be vigilant in all we do. It is important to take what we have learned in good times and in crazy times and utilize them to our advantage, so we can be around for the long-term for our customers and guests. In the end, we know what has and has not worked best for our business, and now is the time to bring all that has worked into alignment for our business’s future.

Kelly Hackman, owner of The White Heron Tea & Gifts and Driftwood Tea Company in historic downtown New Port Richey, Fla., is a World Tea Academy Certified Tea Sommelier and Certified Tea Specialist, in addition to being an etiquette consultant. Hackman has created a unique tea escape at her tearoom, which has assisted in transforming her town’s historic landscape and assists in drawing guests to the area from throughout the Southeastern United States. Visit The White Heron Tea & Gifts online at TheWhiteHeronFL.com and Driftwood Tea Company at DriftwoodTeaCompany.com.