I met Henrietta Lovell, also known as the Tea Lady, at one of Boston’s most beloved restaurants Island Creek Oyster Bar. As the founder of Rare Tea Company, Lovell travels the world supporting the finest tea farmers and visiting the long list of high-end restaurants that procure her selections.
Don’t get too wrapped up in the Tea Lady nickname — Lovell doesn’t fit the stereotype. She is an entrepreneur who built her own company from scratch, while pioneering the direct trade movement and restoring tea to its artisan roots. I sat down with Lovell this winter to talk about tea, entrepreneurialism and the power of consumers to change the world.
Q: Did you always love tea?
A: No, I didn’t love tea bag tea. I drank it like everyone does, but I didn’t ever love it. I thought I loved it. But one day I had really beautiful tea and then I realized, “Oh my God, this is what it can taste like.” Imagine being Italian and only ever having instant coffee. And then someone hands you a cup of the best, freshly ground roasted coffee. Or if you were French, and you only had wine with lemonade it.
I believe in the pleasure principle. Our tea may cost a bit more, but it’s really amazing. I would rather have less and have it be really beautiful. I started the company because I wanted to travel — not to just to see things, but as a way into communities. I was working in corporate America, and one day I just couldn’t do it. I just quit my job, and I left. I went all the way up the Paraguayan highway, traveling through South America. I ended up moving around a lot and then setting for a bit. I realized that before I was just moving, but I wasn’t really getting to know anything about each place. And then, when I settled, I taught little children English and lived in one place for a year, I really learned something. It’s not enough just to move. To make an adventure and to travel you really have to have a way to communicate with people and find out how they live, why they live and what their problems are. With tea, I get to go and stay with farmers and learn about their lives, see how it is to be in these places and ultimately to support them.
Q: You talk about the roots of industrial tea in imperialism. When you speak about going back to the farmers and honoring their traditions and land, you’re really untying the chains of imperialism one farm at a time. You’re going back to roots and creating a new model.
A: Absolutely. Trade is so important. Direct trade is the new way. It’s not about a certified Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade, it’s about working with people. When I look at sustainable farming practices, I don’t just look at it in terms of not cutting down forests and not using pesticides, I also look at it in terms of the people who live and work there and making sure they thrive.
Q: Did your experience in the corporate world translate to Rare Tea Company?
A: Absolutely — because I needed to learn how the world worked. I knew how to make things happen. I knew not to be put-off by what seemed impossible. Most people would not go to a landlocked country like Malawi and buy tea there because it’s hard to get it out. But I knew I could find a way. You can’t just go, “I can’t do it,” and so you find a way to do it. I had that attitude and I got quite far. I was 30 when I left, and I had achieved quite a bit. I couldn’t have done this in my 20s.
Working in a world of men in a very corporate environment, you had to assert yourself and go, “No, I can do this. I have power here.” I think that helped me. I also knew how I didn’t want the company to be. I needed the company to be a meritocracy instead of cronyism. I wanted it to be flat, horizontal. We all have the same title: tea liaisons. I have one guy who is the managing director, but he’s called, “The Big Leaf.” And my tea ladies are called Tea Ladies. If they need to put something on an email to give themselves power, they can do that. They can do whatever they want.
Q: Did people think you were crazy at first?
A: Absolutely. There was no market for loose-leaf tea. 96-98% of tea people drank in Britain was tea bag tea, so to sell anything else was just stupid. I was put in a huge amount of pressure because of the volume trade. They said, you need to create a tea bag and I said, “I won’t.” So I had to create a market. There was no market. There were two department stores in London where you could get really crappy, really expensive, really badly looked after, really badly sourced loose-leaf tea. That was it.
We like to pay our farmers as much as possible. We need to get people who care about that and are part of the revolution. We feel that working in a small company, you can make things happen: you can make more decisions, and you can change the direction of the company. You’re not just a cog. You really need good people. I’m hoping as we grow, we can keep that momentum as a company. That’s going to be interesting.
Q: That’s the challenge.
A: We don’t just want it to be bullsh*t words. We don’t try to weasel out of any taxes. We want to have a national healthcare system here in the UK, and that needs tax funding. We want to give a percentage of our profit back to our farmer, directly to education development. Because that’s going to be the thing that sticks — it’s good marketing, but it also saves communities. It encourages good people to work for our company because they are proud of it. Why would you go work for a small company? Because you want to make change and you want to do something good. They really aren’t motivated for money as much as to be proud of what they do.
Q: What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs?
A: Be brave. There’s never a good time. I’ll do it when I got this much money — that approach doesn’t work. Think about if you really love what you do because it’s going to be your life not your job. I was so naïve. I thought that if I worked really hard and ran my own company I would have more time off. But I never am “off.” I’m always working with tea, talking about tea. Even when I sleep, I’m working out stuff in my head. I wake up sometimes and have done a day’s work. And my weekends, my holidays, my travel — everything is about tea.
It will be what you do, and it will define you. If you’re going to give your life to it, you have to love it and be proud of it. If it’s just to make money, it will be really hard. It takes a long time to make money. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. Or if you have any indecision, it will be really hard. The most important question is not, “Is it a good idea?” It’s, “Do you love it?”
I judge the entrepreneur of the year awards in the UK and I ask the questions, “Does it achieve something useful? Does it do something that makes people in the company happy, at least? Does it change something? Does it make something taste 1000 times better?” Financial figures are not the only things that make a good company.
The idea is to go on an adventure and be brave — I don’t ever wish I did anything differently. If I had more money, which I used to have with a good paying job, I would have a more secure income. But if I had that money, I would spend it on the adventures that I get to have in my daily life: going to Tokyo to work with Noma’s pop up restaurant, coming to Boston, or making cocktails. In truth, the adventures I get to go on I couldn’t afford with all of the money in the world. I couldn’t buy those adventures.
Q: Do you feel like the ritual of tea drinking helps ground you?
A: My ritual in the morning is really important. My eyes are still closed, and I tiptoe to the kettle. I know how to make tea without looking. And then I go back to bed and sip my tea, and that’s when I wake up slowly, gently. I drink this beautiful tea and it transports me to where I’ve been to source it.
I make tea throughout the day, and I have to go through the ritual to make it right. Sometimes, I have no grounding, though. I’m rushing around on too much caffeine. But the reason why tea is really great — like an oolong — is because you can make multiple infusions from it. Coffee will take you high and drop you down quite quickly, whereas tea is slower. It stays in your bloodstream for a long time. If you have another cup, it tops you up. That’s why monks use tea to meditate — it gives you alertness. If you’re at work and you have a teapot and a thermos of hot water, you can keep adding hot water.
Q: You’re not only growing a business, but you’re pioneering the direct trade movement. Can you talk about how you get the ball moving on a revolution?
A: This movement has two different angles. Firstly, I would really like to get people to understand and value direct trade. If you have a direct relationship with producers, it is a lot less likely to be exploitative. If you go through a broker, an auction or are buying from a warehouse that you don’t know — you just order 6 kilos of earl grey tea – who cares where it comes from? It’s much easier for you to make the division between the producers and the lowest cost for your company. You see the product as a commodity rather than a craft that people are making.
It’s a good thing for people to look out for when they are choosing a brand and thinking about which is the best one. Rather than going for a certain organic, Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance symbol, look at the companies that actually have relationships with the farmers. It’s harder. It’s not as easy as just looking for the one with a symbol. You may have to do some investigation — reading the back of the package or looking them up online. But it would make a massive difference. If everything was traded that way, like coffee and chocolate, it would really be a revolution for the better. And that’s the customer making a value decision.
The other side is taste — getting the customer to appreciate the flavor and quality, then we can pay for quality that helps those farmers. It’s about informing the customers of their choices. I have seen the life on some commercial tea farms, coffee farms and chocolate farms. And they have a dollar a day. How can this big industrial farm pay a dollar a day wages? That’s the only way you can produce really, really cheap tea. If the customer insists on having really, really cheap tea, that economy is not going to change. But if we look for something really good and really delicious, the farmers will be more skilled and will really thrive.
There are way more jobs in high-craft tea. Industrial tea bags take a couple of guys and massive machinery. I need to be able to make the customer understand why they’re paying a little bit more for tea. It’s for amazing flavor and to contribute to something good rather than exploitative.
In order for trade to be really good, it has to be sustainable for the land and the people. I only work with farmers who feel a responsibility for all the people and the land, as the future of the people. That should be part of what we look for in producers. We have to redefine what good means: it needs to be amazing in flavor, it has to be good for you — (it should not be filled with chemicals and flavorings) — and good for the farmer and the people who make it. If we can keep those three things together, we will redefine “good.”
There’s no way that some of the chefs I work with would use our tea if it wasn’t the best f*cking tea in the world. There’s just no way. And I know the people who work in chocolate, and it’s the same for them. Ferran Adrià said at the MAD chefs’ conference, “If you follow flavor, you always will find good husbandry.” The flavor of the best meat is from animals that are beautifully tended, without all of the hormones. The best vegetables will always be cultivated by amazing, sustainable processes. It’s really true. Whenever I look for the finest tea, it’s always from amazingly talented craftsmen with massive tradition making small batches of crazy, wonderful stuff.
Q: Do you have a favorite farm?
A: Yes, Satemwa — it’s in East Africa, in Malawi. The owner Alexander Kay is the most courageous and noble character that I have ever known. He is just incredibly responsible for the future, and he does this without realizing it’s special. His self-interest is small —they sustain a community of 10,000 people even though they only employ a few hundred. They really believe in reciprocal care. The better conditions, respect and education, the better the tea. He is not in any way patronizing or superior. He’s a very humble chap. He speaks to people as an equal rather than as an overlord. He’s incredibly kind, thoughtful and noble without really knowing it. He produces just the most magnificent teas.
Q: Where would you like to see Rare Tea Company go?
A: I would love to advocate for direct trade beyond the tea world. I would love to help speak for those farmers and make people aware of relationships — people need to understand the true impact of their choices on consumers. And to be a model. We are starting a charity for tertiary education. We want to put a direct percentage back into the farms — not aid but development. And whatever they need it for. It’s very hard to find education in the mountains. If you’re a genius and you live in those areas, there is no hope. If we do that right, we can be a model for other businesses. I do feel a responsibility to do something bigger.
I know that big companies will come along and make huge amounts of money from really good, ethically traded tea. That’s okay — it’s not all about being the biggest or the richest. It’s about showing that this can be done. When I first started out, people laughed at me a lot. How could you sell tea not in a tea bag? People only drink it in a tea bag. And second, for not making all of my decisions by the highest margin. They said, this is not sustainable, but I’ve shown that it is. People become very loyal. You can build a customer base of people who care. You become a cult brand.
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