When Abigail StClair studied at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., she set her sights on preveterinary classes, specifically marine mammals. Why? Because it was the hardest curriculum. A postcollege stint as a whale trainer at the Mystic Aquarium cured her of that ambition, but her type A personality swiftly had her shifting gears: a steward on an adventure cruise line, a host at the River Café under the Brooklyn Bridge, a server at Signal Mountain Lodge and Marina in Grand Teton National Park, a stint in Jackson, Wyo. (main goal: employment that came with ski privileges).
The constant through all of it? Tea.
She loved the ritual of it as a little girl, developing fairly expensive tastes early on, learning to mail-order loose black teas from around the globe. Many cups later, her professional vagabond career came to a halt when she moved to Tampa in 2008, taking over management of Teavana at International Plaza.
Two years later, StClair, 38, opened her own business, TeBella Tea Company on Davis Islands. Since that time she has become one of the most important voices in tea nationally, growing her business to four locations across Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, as well as becoming a successful tea wholesaler to more than 90 cafes and restaurants in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Most recently she was nominated for the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award, an award bestowed at the annual World Tea Expo and a huge deal in the tea world that has honored the founders of DAVIDsTea, Republic of Tea and other industry leaders. She didn’t win this year, but it seemed like an opportune time to sit down with StClair over a cup of tea, naturally, and read the tea leaves.
What was the tea landscape in the Tampa Bay area when you started?
There was Hooker Tea in St. Pete, but nothing in the South Tampa market. I was looking at properties — it was all the laptop and lattes crowd. I opened TeBella in 2010 when my son, Sawyer, was 3 months old. I had no business degree or background in entrepreneurship. But I’d done the new business boot camp at World Tea Expo, learned everything I could, tasted every tea I could get.
Who were your early customers?
On that first day a gentleman walked in five minutes after we opened. He was a pharmacist at Tampa General and gave us our first dollar. He went on to give us our first dollar at the Oxford Exchange and St. Pete locations, too. It was all word of mouth. Blake Casper (CEO of the Caspers Co. and founder of the tony Oxford Exchange) was a big customer, would come in every afternoon and get Earl Grey with an inch of whole milk. We would talk tea. One day he came in and started asking about the business, our margins. He said, "I own a building and I’m not sure what I want to do with it."
That was one successful collaboration, but it sounds like you’ve had many?
We’ve worked with the Columbia Restaurant Group, did the tea program at Ulele. We’ve worked with Edison, Piquant and with Kim Yelvington at Chocolate Pi. I’ve known Bill Brown at William Dean Chocolates for years and we’ve incorporated teas in his chocolates and done events together. Ro Patel (the celebrity mixologist who currently runs the Collection at the Hall on Franklin) came in and asked if I could take our jasmine pearl tea and turn it into a simple syrup. A week later he came back and said, "I need your card. I entered a cocktail competition and won first place." He has continued to take us with him.
Tea-infused cocktails seem to have become one of your strong suits.
I started teaching tea-infused cocktails at World Tea Expo in 2013. Novelist Lisa See, who wrote a bestseller called Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, was there to research for the book. Her main character sits in on a tea-infused cocktail class, and she was quoting things that I said. I was in the acknowledgements.
Is tea a different business from something like coffee?
Starbucks acquired Teavana in 2012 (in a deal with an estimated value of $620 million), and last year they announced they’d close all 200 stores. Starbucks ran it into the ground. Tea is retail, not beverage. The money is in loose tea and accessories. Ready-to-drink tea is the biggest of the emerging sectors.
What does the future hold for you and TeBella?
We want to increase our wholesale footprint and raise the quality level at area restaurants. We are working on tea-pairing programs. Tea is the next thing. People are choosing tea because it is completely calorie free and a great alternative to alcohol. I think we’re going to get some traction with that concept in Tampa.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.