Millennia Tea Makers Capturing Best Of Sri Lankan Leaves
Posted on April 21, 2021 | Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Tracy Bell and her husband Rory were just chasing an idea years ago, when they found themselves in a small community outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, picking at tea plants.
It’s been a long and sometimes difficult road from that nursery through the launch and early growth of Millennia Tea. But the company recently announced its products – including flash-frozen loose tea – will be carried in Sobeys stores nationwide, growing out of Sobeys’ Support Local program. The Bells, from the company’s office in Saint John, New Brunswick, are celebrating it as a milestone.
“We have a good, dedicated base of customers here and throughout Atlantic Canada and now to be able to share our product across the country is a really good feeling and speaks to the consumers’ interest,” Tracy Bell said, in an interview with Atlantic Business Magazine.
The couple began sifting through marketing around healthy foods and drinks after a health scare in the family (it involved Tracy’s father-in-law, who is now doing much better). Their research led to greater interest in tea, and they began to dig deep into some of the reported benefits, particularly tied to the high antioxidant content of certain tea products.
They thought it might be possible to have an even better cuppa, one with saleable traits like some of the highest antioxidant levels, if you worked with fresh leaves from the tea plant – Camellia sinensis –instead of the dried leaf found in just about every kitchen in North America.
The business started with a theory, launching them on the hunt for healthy tea plants. The search led them to rent a car and drive to the small nursery in North Carolina. They used leaves from tea plants there for some initial lab tests. Bell says the results reflected some of their early understanding from their research on fresh tea, and from there it was a little more lab work paired with a lot of sweat equity in product development.
By 2017, they were incorporated and branded as Millennia Tea and, with a small run of flash frozen tea leaves, made their way to Las Vegas to the World Tea Expo. The expo is pitched as the leading tradeshow and conference featuring premium teas and targeted to wholesalers and leaders in the industry. Millennia Tea was named best new product.
Bell said Whole Foods tea buyer (through subsidiary Allegro Coffee Co.) Brian Keating was involved in the Expo awards and went on to offer mentorship, prior to his passing in 2018. Keating introduced the Bells to the market, “the who’s who of tea” as Tracy said. He also introduced them to some of the challenges of launching a new tea product but offered ideas on sourcing and supply chain, for scaling up.
It was an essential requirement to find the right source area and the right relationship with farmers. The Bells needed a primary processor able to carefully handle, wash and more importantly flash freeze their leaves and produce more than trade show samples.
“We travelled to Sri Lanka and spent time in the fields, meeting the farmers and families there, understanding the geography, meeting with researchers,” Tracy said.
They met Dr. Sarath Ranaweera, founder and chairman of Bio Foods and ultimately landed the company as a supplier, with its co-op ties. In 2014, the World Fairtrade Labelling Association awarded Ranaweera the first-ever title of “World’s Fairest Fairtrader” and he introduced the Bells to some of the tea farmers supplying Millennia Tea leaves, and the BRC-certified facility near the small-scale farms for processing.
Back home, working to build their product and placements, the Bells made an appearance on the tv series Dragon’s Den. Tracy Bell says it was a great experience for two people launching their first business with no prior experience in the sector. As for what followed, she said only that the couple has “since come to learn all kinds of things” about hurdles and opportunities.
“Our tea doesn’t live in the tea aisle. It lives in the freezer, beside the frozen berries, which is sometimes difficult for people to understand,” she said, explaining they’ve been gaining ground in the challenge of introducing “a whole new category of tea” for brewing or for popping into your smoothie.
There was an immense challenge with establishing the company’s cold chain supply, to move product from Sri Lanka to the Canadian market, but it’s been hammered out and managed to date.
Another challenge is the company’s need for customers inside and now outside of Atlantic Canada to start thinking of tea in the frozen foods section. It must work to secure proper placement with retailers and have staff understand and be on board with referring customers to a fresh tea product.
Millennia Tea isn’t named for millennials, but for the idea of traditional tea making (“a millennia ago”). Tracy Bell said she believes the company is gaining ground with the concept and their approach. She would not share sales figures, but noted the company was able to secure financing in early 2020 to help respond to interest, also hiring a staff member at that time to help with marketing and public education around the product.
Looking back, she said hindsight is 2020 and there were certainly mistakes made along the way, but she’s learned “business is just business.” It’s easy to lose sight, she said, as “we make it so stressful and we wear things, and we stew on failures or mistakes or past wrongdoings,” but she said it’s essential not to let any one thing weigh too heavily. After all, a little momentum can go a long way. •
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