Case study: Brooklyn Tea

This New York couple transformed one of their childhood traditions into a business idea, filling a gap in the market and growing into a community-based brand and shop.
Brooklyn Tea hero

Alfonso ‘Ali’ Wright and Jamila McGill’s business grew like all great loves – slow, thoughtful, intentional and then all at once. The co-founders and couple took three years to brainstorm and develop their idea for a New York-based tea room and shop – investing in education, studying the market and forging relationships – before they took concrete steps to launch it.

The seeds of the idea were planted in Ali’s childhood. Tea was a popular part of his Jamaican culture and he had been brewing herbal and medicinal blends for as long as he can remember. But turning it into something more substantial (and profitable) remained just a thought in the back of his mind – until he met Jamila and shared his dream.

At the time, Ali worked as a digital marketer and Jamila as a dean of elementary students. Their first discussion about starting a company together around the idea of tea took place during, of all things, one of their first dates. Even though Ali had also co-founded a digital community called Alumni Roundup back in 2010, he says that, ‘in our relationship, I’m the dreamer and Jamila is the person who gets things accomplished. I probably would have talked about this idea for a decade, but Jamila made sure that it became something.’

More: Hear our podcast conversation with Ali here.

They almost immediately began taking steps to crack open the idea, interrogate its viability, look at the pros and cons, and learn more about the industry.

Put on your thinking cap

Step one was cultivating a deeper understanding of what, exactly, they wanted to sell. Ali decided to roll up his sleeves and dig deep into studying the subject, eventually receiving his tea sommelier certification in 2015 – a year after his and Jamila’s date – and he also began working nights and weekends at a tea shop in Manhattan to get a better understanding of how a small tea shop actually functioned.

In order to flesh out their idea and see what the competition was doing, they hit the road for market research trips. ‘We would go tea hopping instead of bar hopping,’ says Jamila. With a journal in hand, they would visit tea shops in New York, Washington DC, Atlanta – they even journeyed as far as Paris – and took notes on everything from tea room aesthetics, customer service and tea varieties to even the location of the bathrooms.

These trips helped the couple form a more concrete idea of how their shop and product might look, smell and taste – and how they should stand out from the crowd. They also started a blog where they documented their learnings, and uploaded notes and photos.

‘We almost always spoke to the owners,’ says Jamila. ‘Tea is one of those beautiful industries where everyone is really open, and it helps that sharing is at the core of the tea drinker’s lifestyle. It’s an industry very much based around collaboration, not competition.’

‘We were ready enough. You can spring your wheels about how to make everything perfect, but you have to, at some point, just strike.’
Nose in a book

During the brainstorming phase, they continued to grow their network. Ali exchanged information with his sommelier colleagues and they began to work with talented friends who advised on everything from branding and online sales to trademarking.

Ali also started to spend a lot of time at the Brooklyn Public Library, reading books about how to start a business, the aesthetics of tea shops, Japanese design and digital databases. ‘The research gave me the ability to feel more comfortable and confident starting this business,’ he says. ‘I questioned everything and found the answers in books as well as outside the library. We went all over the city.’

Ali was spending so much time there that the librarian told him about a local business competition hosted by the library. This was the catalyst the pair needed to put all their ideas, research and conversations into a formal document – which led them to visit the Brooklyn borough president’s office to understand how to best build a business plan. (Head to Step 3 for advice on building your plan.)

The two thought about the location for their shop with a similar thoroughness, visiting almost every neighbourhood in New York – and saving Bedford- Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy, where they eventually opened their shop, for last. It was everything they hoped their local neighborhood could be.

In 2018, after three years of brainstorming, market research and planning, Jamila compared their online presence and product to the competition’s and felt they were ready to launch Brooklyn Tea in the real world. ‘We were ready enough. You can spring your wheels about how to make everything perfect, but you have to, at some point, just strike,’ she says.

This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.

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