Written by Andrew Seale
If coffee speaks to the society we are, tea speaks to the society we could probably get better at being. Or so goes some tea drinker mantra.
“In North America, we're so consumed with having coffee and caffeinating and being productive whereas with tea you actually sit down take time out of the day, you have a chat, it's a very different experience,” says David O’Connor, who co-founded Genuine Tea alongside his partner Sarah Wilcox. “What’s the saying – tea drinkers meditate and coffee drinkers medicate?”
Well, most of the time. “Now that we're entrepreneurs we have to medicate as well,” says O’Connor with a laugh.
The pair met in British Columbia in 2008 before moving to Taiwan for five years. O’Connor’s British roots meant he was well-versed in the English tea ritual but both became quick converts to the world of artisanal teas.
“We did our MBAs there,” says Wilcox. “For one of our projects we were researching the tea industry and came up with the idea to bring a more genuine experience to the North American tea industry.”
So often, North Americans forget that tea is an agricultural product, not a consumer vertical tethered to some massive pharmaceutical company operating half a world away.
“In Taiwan, tea is more of an artisan product and tea masters will spend 25 to 30 years perfecting the craft with some of the teas going for thousands of dollars,” says O’Connor of the cultural appreciation they found in their adopted home. “Here, that’s happened in the coffee industry but teas been lagging.”
They wanted to do it differently, strip it down and bring back the intimacy of the ritual, of the relationship between the varietals and the farmer’s hand to what ends up in the tea drinkers cup. They launched Genuine Tea in 2015 and joined the City of Toronto’s Starter Company program, selling their tea at seven farmer’s markets a week.
“We were hustling,” says Wilcox.
“We had a permanent stall up at St. Jacobs three days a week… Sarah got up at four a.m. and drove to that,” adds O’Connor.
There was also an education component, a re-education for the over-caffeinated.
“We have some really beautiful oolongs, white teas, and pu'erh teas in our collection… that's not very common here,” says Wilcox. “We get people in with the Cream of Earl Grey and then we graduate them up to a more orthodox tea.”
But the farmers market grind paid off. They realized there was a demand for high quality Earl Greys and peppermints and chamomiles alongside their high-end, single origin teas. “We've also expanded into beautiful herbal teas, brought in a turmeric gold latter blend,” says Wilcox. “Our business has evolved and changed since day one.”
Genuine Tea sells it loose leaf tea online and provides tea programs for cafes. They’re in over 300 spots across Ontario with clients in the U.S. and across the country.
Last April, when they were in the hazy first days of parenthood, they found themselves on Dragon’s Den. “It's all a blur,” says Wilcox. “Somehow we got a deal with Arlene, closed it in September and joined her District Ventures accelerator program.”
District Ventures is the only incubator for food and beverage in Canada, says O’Connor. “It's nation-wide.” The relationships they’ve built through the program have been invaluable. “And those relationships are continually growing across Canada.”
That’s the goal of Genuine Tea, thoughtful, meditative expansion, like the tea they’re peddling.
“Tea’s the second most consumed beverage on the planet,” says O’Connor. “Every culture that lives in Toronto, everyone's drinking tea, so we have the opportunity to bring those experiences and bring everyone together and share the different cultures and their experience of tea.”
Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)