Abigail StClair has plans for more growth ahead. Staying true to some core hiring principles will be crucial to her company's success.
Soon after Abigail StClair opened her tea shop, a man who worked at the real estate office next door walked in and said, “So let me get this straight — this is going to be a tea shop, and you plan to make money at this?”
The same man came back a couple of years later and said: “Abigail, I think I underestimated you. I watched you grow to multiple stores, and I’ve seen how many people come here every day.”
Since she founded it in 2010, StClair, 40, has led the growth of TeBella Tea Co. from one to four retail stores in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota that sell loose-leaf tea and tea accessories. The company, with about 25 employees, has also found success wholesaling to about 150 clients and revenue, from all the sales channels, nearly tripled from 2014 to 2019, StClair says — proving people, like that early naysayer, wrong. (StClair declines to disclose specific sales figures.)
After facing temporary store closures during the pandemic, TeBella finished 2020 down 12% year over year. Like many in retail, online sales and curbside pickup have become a growing revenue stream for TeBella amid the pandemic, mitigating some of the losses. Pre-coronavirus, the website accounted for 6% of revenue. Now it’s up to 17%, she says. "We’re doing a lot to be successful right now," she says. "I’m really confident we’ll weather this storm.”
StClair, despite the pandemic dip, sees bright days ahead for the company. That includes more stores and employees, who she hires by focusing on two traits: problem-solving skills and passion. Going into her second decade, StClair also relies on several key lessons she says have made her a better entrepreneur.
‘You have to be really resilient and not take things too much to heart or too personally. If you’re easily deflated or feeling like you can’t do it, then you won’t. You have to feel like success is the only option and failure is not on the table.’ — Abigail StClair, TeBella Tea Co.
One example: StClair has shifted away from day-to-day operations to focus on the direction of the business. “Four or five years in, I still had shifts behind the counter,” she says. Now things are different. “I’m not actively trying to find subs if someone is sick, or if we’re running low on milk at a location, I’m not actively trying to solve that myself.”
Another lesson is a little more personal: Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. “You have to be really resilient and not take things too much to heart or too personally,” she says. “If you’re easily deflated or feeling like you can’t do it, then you won’t. You have to feel like success is the only option and failure is not on the table.”
Over the years, StClair has also learned more about the kind of employees she needs. When she interviews job candidates, she focuses on two traits: the ability to solve problems and the ability to speak passionately about something. She gives job applicants a couple scenarios and asks how they would solve them. StClair says, “So many are based on things that have actually happened, like the drain in the sink isn’t draining. What’s the very first thing that you do?” She also asks them to tell her something they’re passionate about. If they can talk passionately about something like music or kids, she says, they can talk passionately about tea. “I’m looking for that passion in their eyes.”
StClair always liked the taste of tea and the ritual associated with it, but at first, she had different career goals. “The plan was originally to pursue veterinary school,” she says. After college, she worked as a whale trainer at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, and it made her realize she didn’t want to pursue veterinary medicine. She then worked in hospitality, including on a cruise ship, all the while asking herself what would make her happy. She found the answer in tea. “I kind of took a bit of a circuitous route,” she says.
In 2010, StClair opened her first tea shop on Davis Islands in Tampa. She had considered starting the business online but thought better of it. “That market was so crowded, and you really needed so much in terms of search engine optimization to get noticed,” she says.
Wholesale also wasn’t part of the early plan. That segment of the business grew organically. “We got the first 30 or 40 wholesale customers without having a program,” StClair says. “They came to us.” Three or four years ago, TeBella formalized the program and hired a wholesale manager. Now it serves 150 hotels, restaurants and other clients. Another milestone in the company’s growth was renting a warehouse in Tampa, a move that allowed it to purchase larger quantities and save on costs.
StClair also wants to open more TeBella stores, possibly two or three within the next five years. Target areas include downtown Sarasota and the Winter Haven area. "If we moved outside this area, we would probably move up the coast to a city like Asheville, [N.C.]," she says. "We want to grow in areas we can still access from the warehouse before thinking about other warehouses in other locations."