Local Tea Co. has felt the impacts of the pandemic on its wholesale business. Recent months, though, have also led to more online sales.
| 4:10 p.m. September 18, 2020
There’s been much ado about the impact of the pandemic on restaurants. It’s also, of course, hurting suppliers of restaurants.
One area wholesaler feeling those effects is Sarasota-based Local Tea Co. Owner Michael Duranko, who says people aren’t eating at restaurants as much anymore, and when they do, fewer stick around for a hot cup of tea. Plus business models in the restaurant industry count on capacity, and the pandemic has put a crimp in that. “It’s a scary time to be in the restaurant business,” Duranko says. “It’s even scarier if you’re supplying that restaurant space.”
On the flip side to that decrease, the company has seen increased sales to individuals online. To drum up more interest, Duranko has plans for additional marketing efforts, from newsletters to blog posts.
Earlier iterations of Duranko’s business included retail locations, among them a coffee shop on Siesta Key that he’s since sold and a tea shop at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. He incorporated tea into the business early on, after his mom gave him some advice: “You have to have tea.”
‘If anything, I’ve pivoted to be a little bit better online marketer. I suspect that’s helping me to some degree.’ Michael Duranko, Local Tea Co.
Duranko, who was previously a chemical engineer for Morton Salt and worked for computer magazines, ran the tea shop at Selby Gardens for several years, which allowed the business to grow and develop fans. When Selby put its concessions out to bid, looking for a large firm to run catering, Duranko thought it was a good time to leave. He’d always had a wholesale business, and he decided to focus on it. “We really got aggressive about trying to grow the wholesale business,” he says.
Now he provides tea, both loose leaf and in tea bags, as well as coffee, syrups, smoothie blends and other items to wholesale clients primarily in Sarasota and Manatee counties. He intentionally doesn’t sell too many different items, instead concentrating on what the company does best. “I looked at carrying cups and extending the lines, but really the business is about tea, so I’m not trying to go down the path of a food distributor,” he says.
The company’s wholesale clients include Selva Grill, The Crow’s Nest, Morton’s Gourmet Market and Jack Dusty at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Amid the pandemic, wholesale orders are down, but he’s starting to see them slowly come back. Duranko is working to keep the clients he has and find clever ways to support what they need. “We’re always looking for new wholesale customers who want to differentiate themselves,” he says.
To create teas sold by Local Tea Co., he works with two blenders in the U.S. who also take care of importing tea and bagging it. “I’m really on the distribution side of it,” Duranko says. Local Tea Co. sells 65 teas, including some tailored to area attractions, such as Selby Gardens and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. “Our brands are well known,” Duranko says. “We’re working with a new restaurant in Bradenton, and the clients are asking about specifically our Mote tea. We’ve been doing this a long time. People out there know about Mote Beach Tea and Selby Select and some of the other teas we have.” When people love your brand, he says, it’s important to keep it consistent.
During the pandemic, online sales have been up — not an extreme hockey stick growth curve, Duranko says — but they have increased. “Online was a godsend,” he says. One trend he’s seeing: People are spending more time at home and saying they want better quality tea to enjoy. He’s also fielding more questions about tea, one reason why he’s more actively posting blogs as an opportunity to educate.
Local Tea Co.’s online customers are across the U.S., and Duranko says many have a connection to Sarasota. They might have gotten his tea as a gift, know someone in Sarasota or have visited before. “I’m amazed when someone in Montana finds out about us,” he says.
Because online sales have become more important during the pandemic, Duranko wants to grow that side of the business. He’s taken classes to improve his knowledge of search engine optimization, so he can better drive customers to his website. “If anything, I’ve pivoted to be a little bit better online marketer,” he says. “I suspect that’s helping me to some degree.”
In another marketing effort, he’s started up the Local Tea Co. email newsletter again to keep customers and potential customers informed about the company. Duranko also plans to include his teas in a subscription box called the Sips by Box that sends people teas from different vendors. “I’m starting to do more marketing where I’m putting my product into hands of people,” he says. “For something as tangible as tea, you really have to taste it.”