As we turned the corner of Northern Blvd and Plandome Road in Manhasset, New York the church on the corner was a familiar site. I had not been here in many years but immediately recognized the store front we needed. Along with my daughter, we came to see my friend Linda Villano who has created the best specialty tea company on the planet. Yes the planet. I say that because I am an avid tea drinker my entire life and tried many specialty teas which kind of makes me an expert. As we entered the smell of store was radiating fresh mouthwatering tea from all over the world. On display were some of the basic necessities for brewing fresh tea. Tea pots, cups, sample packs of tea and tea cloths.
There is a wall filled from floor to ceiling with every tea and tea blend that Linda created. Customers can come in and sample the tea or mix and match for an interesting creation. I have mixed and matched myself. I blend Eve’s Temptation with Berry Blueberry for a caffeine free fruity lift. My other favorite is Congo Bongo that has coconut and chocolate and black tea for when I need a boost.
Nearly 20 years ago Linda and her husband Tomoslov started with their love of tea and an opportunity. Their team work gave birth to SerendipiTea. The company imports tea from all over the world including countries previously unknown for their tea gardens. Linda works her magic buy creating unique tea blends and has a thriving wholesale and retail enterprise. To her many credits SerendipiTea’s website was nominated for “Best Tea Retail website” by the World Tea Awards (2014) and the proud winner of two American Tea Championship awards (2013)
After heartfelt greetings and the usual formalities, we sat down to talk about teas. Her huge oak desk has her computer, lots of paper and is stained with many previous steaming cups of tea. Linda stepped out of the office to fill two infuser tea pots. As a master tea server she came back with well worn tea cups and tea pots. Each clear glass pot looked as if it had seen many brews steeped in them.
Linda told us she is serving 2 blends: One is a Faux Coca which is a caffeine free based blend of Rooibos, Chocolate & Spice, the other one is called Buccaneer which is a south Indian black tea base blended with Rooibos chocolate and vanilla and coconut for my daughter.
Get ready for an education and welcome Linda Villano of SerendipiTea.
Purely Simple Words (PSW): Here we are in SerendipiTea’s home base with the beautiful and talented Linda Villano. What got you started in the tea business?
Linda Villano (LV): Oh boy that’s a long story but I will shorten it. SerendipiTea was started in 1995 that is close to 20 years ago. Which is shocking to me. My former partner and husband was from Australia, he was of Slavic background so drinking tea is an everyday occurrence. So we had tea in the house all the time. My husband thought it was an abomination to have tea in bags. So we used loose tea. I didn’t know anything but tea bags. I am from an Italian background we drank coffee and tea was for when you were sick, and I didn’t know anything but tea bags. So it was an education for me in the beginning just in our home.
My husband was working for a Japanese department store called Felissimo. On the top floor of the store there was an art gallery and tea room. He managed the art gallery. The tea room was a traditional Japanese tea room but not just Japanese teas were sold, there were teas in general. So he would go to the tea room, talk about tea, chime in when there were tea programs…eventually he became known as the Tea Guy.
He met a woman who had a bath and beauty line who asked my husband to develop a line of tea and candle products. He came from a retail background and I came from a restaurant background (my family had restaurants). So we started to experiment with different varieties of tea. The woman was not committed to the line and we already had the foundation so we created our own company. It started in our fifth floor walk-up on the upper west side of Manhattan. Before we knew it we had a business. We started in the food service area and specialty kitchens. Eventually we opened a retail line.
It all happened by an incredible accident. It wasn’t anything we planned. It was serendipity.
PSW: How many different types of tea blends do you have?
LV: In tea there are 5 main categories of tea: black, white, green, oolong and pu-erh. Tisanes are Herbals, florals, botanicals, etc. Everything that is not tea. Some tea is re-packed the way they are received. Others are used in blends. The blends represent about 30 percent of what we offer, blends can be both tisane and tea.
PSW: How do you name your tea blends?
LV: Darjeeling for example, is a growing region, Ceylon tea is from Sri Lanka is a growing country. Names of certain teas are what they are. The blends, the ones we make here are named by how they feel, taste, smell, but it should make some sense for example Fiji is a lush green tea with pineapple and papaya…tastes & smells like what I imagine Fiji to be!
Once Upon A Tea was our first chocolate blend. I created this caffeine-free blend for my friend’s daughter who was under two years old. She liked to sip tea from her mother’s cup, her mom was concerned about caffeine. This has a little chocolate in it, good for kids.
PSW: All of your products are organic and there are no machine used for weighing, measuring and packing is hand done plus your packaging is bio degradable. Everything is hand made , home made and fresh made and that is a very unique thing. Most shoppers go to the grocery store and buy boxed teas. However loose and fresh tea is very different and your product is the real thing. How did you learn so much about tea?
LV: When we started there was no tea education. No formal tea class. Everyone in the industry at the time learned from each other. We are known as the specialty tea industry. In the specialty tea industry now there are a lot of tea training options. And through the Tea Association of the USA there are intense certificate programs. It takes years get to the level of a certified tea specialist. The tea world is different now. Which is a good thing because as tea became more popular here in the US the consumer became more educated about tea so education had to keep up. The same thing happened in the wine industry. There are tea geeks that are passionate about tea, there are meet-ups, tea swaps, tea programs, tea groups, tea books, there’s a whole world of just tea drinkers, sharing information, and knowledge. There are some tea courses that are not very reputable. Check them all out before you enroll.
PSW: What countries do you travel to, to pick up your teas?
LV: I actually just got back in May from Guatemala. This is a surprising place to import tea from but we have been importing tea from Guatemala for four years now. They are also suppliers for cardamom. Usually it’s the big five India, China, Taiwan, Ceylon and Japan that’s where most of our teas come from. But we also carry tea from Kenya and Tanzania. I have not been to the African countries yet. But the others I have visited. I visited the Azores Islands 3 years ago which is part of Portugal and in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, half way between here (USA) and the Portuguese coast line. These are a series of islands that are absolutely beautiful. I was on the big island of Sao Miguel where there are two remaining tea gardens. The tea is great and different because of where it is grown and the salty sea air. I like finding teas from grown from unusual origins.
PSW: Do these companies come to you or do you find them?
LV: Both. The Guatemala garden reached out to us. Other companies have as well. The gardens in the Azores I had known about from a good friend of mine, Pearl Dexter the founder/past owner of TEA Magazine. She introduced me to them.
PSW: How do you think you have grown by having your own business?
LV: It’s a lot of responsibility. Shortly after we first started we moved from NYC to Connecticut because we needed space. I am familiar with Connecticut because I went to school there. We knew we could get more if we went to Connecticut as opposed to staying in NYC. Because it was just me and my husband we could take risks and we could wing it. When we started to take on employees it really changed the dynamics, I realized I was not just responsible for my business and making sure it is reputable. But I was taking on someone else’s livelihood. And I had a responsibility to them as well. What I do now, Tomoslov is no longer with us, is for everybody’s sake. I make calculated decisions and I weight everything very heavily. If I invest in something or make certain purchases, I am conservative by nature but when it comes to the business I am more so to keep the business solvent. My mantra is not to rule the world but to put out a good product and make sure everyone is happy. Then we can all do nicely.
PSW: What is the best part you like about the tea business?
LV: I love to travel. I love experiencing different cultures. Just the relationships we have with the growers in other countries is really enriching, it’s really important in order to maintain a sound existence you must be able to see things through other peoples eyes and experiencing life through other people perspective helps in so many decisions making situations. Just in the office here we have folks from Latin America, India, Tibet, Columbia, USA we have a really nice mix of people. We are an international microcosm as it is. We are different origins under one roof. In an ideal world this is how we should be. I enjoy interacting with other cultures because it takes me out of myself.
But I also love working with the tea, the blending process. This part is really, really fun so is the writing. And social media, like FB. Even though sometimes it drives me crazy. And once in a while we do shows where we get to interact with customers. Since we are wholesalers primarily we really don’t interact with customers so when we get the chance to do the shows and it’s really fun.
PSW: Is there anything that drives you nuts about running this business?
LV: there is plenty that drives me nuts. Doing payroll, taxes, the nitty gritty number crunching. What is moving and what is not. It is all a necessary part of what you have to do when you have a business you have to see every aspect of the business and it gives me a snap shot of what is going on. It is not my favorite thing. I am not a numbers person. To me that part is effort.
PSW: What are your business plans for the future?
LV: One of the things we did about 4 years ago was add a line of tea bags. It was necessary because many of our customers are cafe customers and tea house customers that have fast service like , morning rushes and they kept asking for tea bags and unfortunately we lost a few customers because they went with companies that had tea bags. A number of years ago a certain tea bag became available. (Linda shows us a triangle shaped tea bag). I know there are many types of tea bags available out there some are nylon, some are paper with staples but one became available that is made out of plant based material and over time it is bio-degradable. That was my biggest concern.
All of our packaging is post-consumer recycled content and biodegradable, we are considered artisan and boutique because we do things by hand. When you are so close to a product you see if something is not right or is inconsistent. No machinery is used and no energy is being wasted. So when the soilon tea bags became available I thought “someone is sending me a message” and we have to do it. We introduced a line of tea-bags in bulk for food service a few years ago and it’s only increased our sales in this sector. We just finished the Fancy Food Show which is a big trade show at the Javits Center in NYC for Gourmet Food. There we introduced a retail line of the tea-bags.
PSW: Which teas to do put in the tea bags?
LV: We have twelve kinds: everything is organic, Breakfast Tea, Darjeeling single estate, Earl Grey, Black and Blue which is a black tea with blueberries, Marsala Chai, China Green, Jasmine Yin Hao, which is a green tea with jasmine, Passion and Envy, which is passion fruit with straight green tea. Strictly Strawberry which is a caffeine free strawberry fruit blend, Peppermint, Chamomile, Coco Loco Nut which is a rooibos, chocolate & coconut blend.
PSW: Is the majority of your business in wholesale, trade shows or retail?
L. LV: The majority of our business is in bulk wholesale I would say that 75% of our business is food service. Selling to restaurants, cafes, tea houses, any one who uses our tea to serve customers. This is how we started. I feel comfortable in that business I grew up in that business. I am comfortable in and out of restaurant kitchens, that was natural. It was easier to grow the business in the food service area. We have a website and I probably don’t pay enough attention to making it more successful but it does OK , I know it could do much better. And that is retail based for the end consumer. We do have a retail line that we wholesale to places like Dean and DeLuca and Zabars and other specialty food stores. That’s the segment I am really trying to focus on with places like Fresh Direct, they carry our line. But that is the segment I am trying to figure out to expand because we are New York based and we are recognized in the NYC five boroughs, lower Westchester, and Connecticut. We have good representation on the West Coast and have a broker who has been working with us since 1997 who is great.
In the middle of the country people tend to carry us places. So if someone has worked in a restaurant here and moved out West they tend to take us with them I think if we do more exposure in retail shows people will know about it and ask for us and hopefully will increase sales overall. So that is where my focus has been these days.
PSW: Are most of your sales in the US?
LV: Yes the majority. We also have representation in Japan called SerendipiTea Japan. Also a sister company SerendipiTea Australia which is my late/former husband’s brother. He started this company 7-8 years ago, I buy the tea for them because they are basically not tea people, they understand marketing and placement and great sales. We have a long time customer in Seoul South Korea, she a former Julliard student who drank our tea here in NY and opened a tea house in Korea when she returned. We have a customer in Denmark of all places. They just find us in the oddest ways. There’s one here and there.
PSW: Would you like to add advice to anyone who wants to be in this business and what have you learned about being in business?
LV: The tea business is booming. It is a wide open area and if you truly love tea and would like to get into the business. There’s lots of opportunity, you can go to Linked-in where there are tea enthusiastic, FB, meet-ups and you can reach out to your local tea purveyor. You can contact them and see if they need help in any capacity.
Once you are in remember business is business is business, so we are not hanging around talking about tea all day. We are in a business. I love the enthusiasm of tea but if all you want to do is sit around and talk about tea it is not productive the business needs to run and to be successful and to operate it has to run like a well-oiled machine.
I am pretty strict about when we do have tastings. It is usually in the mornings. I will call and invite staff to taste and explain why and what I am doing. I have a library in the hallway with tons of information, books videos, for staff to borrow and increase their tea knowledge. We have periodicals also from time to time we will do crash talks about tea specifically. Enthusiasm about the product is wonderful and necessary, but most of the time it is a business.
Consider I did it at a time when I did not have any major responsibility so I could take risks and I knew I could shift gears and find a job if it didn’t work. Be cautious, plan, have more than one contingency plan. Just in case things don’t work out. Be positive. And hope for it to work out and do your darnedest to make it. There are so many resources available, take advantage of them! And where there is a will there is a way I firmly believe that and I am stubborn as they come. If I am told No it won’t work out I say Yeah you want to try me. You will figure it out, where there is a will there is a way. My other mantra is “Know your limitations”. That is for me to know when to ask for help. You can’t do everything, you can’t know everything. For example, I rely heavily on my accountant to answer questions. I am not an accountant I was never trained in business I come from an art background. So a lot of this is learning as you go along. Sonam (my assistant) is amazing with computers technology and software systems. She is fantastic and I rely on her heavily for a lot of those things. And other things like customer relations. It’s important to know where you need to be bolstered. And look for that in different people especially those who want to go along for the ride.
PSW: So there is no way I want this interview to end. But is there anything you want to add?
LV: I am so glad to see you and happy you are following your dreams of interviewing. It is your turn now. I am thrilled and honored to be one of your interviewees. Thanks and so nice to see you and your daughter.
PSW: Thank you so much for your time and I love you because you have been so nice to us. We will certainly remain in touch.
Absorbing the atmosphere and finishing our tea I sense an intimate family feel, everyone is happy and Linda is generous with her time and knowledge. She is personable and that is one of her greatest qualities besides her knowledge of the tea world. On the SerendipiTea website the knowledge continues. The Shop tab will bring you an extensive array of teas and blends. Click on Tea World and find: Tea Culture, Tea Recipes, Tea and Health, Universi-Tea, Tea Tips and Articles by SerendipiTea.
For more information and happy tea drinking go to: http://www.serendipitea.com