“Slinging tea” is the most appropriate phrase to describe what goes on at the TeBella tea bar, tucked into the back corner of the atrium at Oxford Exchange. There is constant flurry of activity, a whirlwind of floral aprons and “hello, how may I help you’s” as TeBella’s teamakers keep up with the vibrant energy of Oxford Exchange on a bustling afternoon. Each tea drink is steeped and cupped to order for each customer — iced teas poured into cocktail tins and given a vigorous shake— before they’re served to guests on the go or in the adjacent Oxford Exchange restaurant.
This is TeBella Tea at Oxford Exchange. Fast paced, spirited, and drink-driven. About a mile away, however, is TeBella Tea Company’s original Davis Islands location, a tea boutique and cafe that offers around 120 carefully selected loose tea blends in the relaxed island atmosphere of Davis Islands’ quaint business district. Opened in 2010, the Davis Islands store is the manifestation of owner, Abigail StClair’s lifelong passion for tea and all that it signifies.
“When I was first interested in tea,” StClair says, “especially as a little girl, it had more to do with the ritual — the ceremony of sitting and enjoying a beautiful cup of tea — more than the tea itself. As my tea tastes evolved, it became more about the tea.”
StClair has taken particular care to source a tea collection that will appeal to all sorts of tea drinkers. While traditional teas like Silver Needle, Gyokuro, and Darjeeling are well represented for the tea connoisseurs, TeBella Tea also offers flavored teas and caffeine free alternatives for tea drinkers who are not yet sure what they like.
When TeBella Tea first opened, StClair was unsure what to expect from the first few years of operation. A first time business owner, she knew opening her own business would not be easy. “The first year was really hard,” she says. “I expected it to be hard so I was prepared for it, but I spent a lot of time working in the business rather than on the business. I did all things from waiting on customers to mopping the floors at the end of the night. In that first year, I remember opening and closing the store six or seven days a week. But I [also] had a lot of support, and I continue to have a lot of support.”
Two years after opening the Davis Islands store, TeBella Tea Company was invited to become a part of Oxford Exchange, and things took off for the business in ways she could not have predicted. “We feel so lucky to have been invited to join the Oxford Exchange project [in 2012]. It’s been an amazing partnership,” she explains.
During a busy weekend, Oxford Exchanges’s TeBella Tea Bar regularly makes between 500-1,000 cups of tea, far exceeding StClair’s initial expectations for the tea program. “Oxford Exchange has exposed our brand to so many more people than we feel we could’ve ever reached on our own,” she admits. “We’ve had more people tasting our tea than we ever anticipated in these initial years. We’re extremely grateful for that opportunity, as it’s helped us really grow both our brand and our customer base.”
Fostering a growing interest in loose leaf tea is one of the best parts of the business, StClair shares. People are often intimidated by the process at first, she says, but with a little encouragement many customers enthusiastically embrace the ritual and process of preparing loose leaf tea.
To that effect, Oxford Exchange has also been a wonderful ally in showcasing the ease and simplicity of making loose leaf tea a part of daily life. StClair credits the success of Oxford Exchange’s tea program with piquing the interest of other local restaurants and cafes. As she explains, “Our relationship with Oxford Exchange has helped us grow our wholesale business tremendously. When we first opened, a lot of restaurants were scared of taking on loose tea programs, and weren’t quite sure if the extra effort that goes into preparing a loose leaf cup of tea was worth it in the end in terms of time expended and value for the customer.
“The popularity of the tea program at Oxford Exchange has really helped everyone in the community understand how much value a loose leaf tea program can add to a restaurant business, and that it’s not as complicated as it may seem.”
In the last year, TeBella Tea’s wholesale business has grown to include over 20 cafes, restaurants, and bars in North and Central Florida. As part of the wholesale program, StClair places an emphasis on tea education, and provides hands-on tea training for every wholesale customers’ staff. According to StClair, it has been a joy to watch Tampa Bay area embrace loose leaf tea wholeheartedly over the last four and a half years, and to see loose leaf tea gain popularity in a city with a historically strong coffee culture.
StClair is looking forward to growing TeBella’s brand in Tampa and the surrounding area in the immediate future. A third TeBella Tea location is in the works to open before the end of 2015, with a possible fourth location on the horizon for 2016. In the more distant future, StClair hopes to further establish her reputation in the international tea community. She has been invited to speak at the World Tea Expo on several occasions, and would like to continue to devote more time to speaking engagements and educational events.
As TeBella Tea continues to grow, StClair is excited to bring her knowledge and passion for loose leaf tea to a wider audience of potential tea lovers.