For Brooklynites Jamila McGill and Alfonso “Ali” Wright, tea drinking led to a business and a romantic courtship that will culminate in marriage on Aug. 28.
When Wright and McGill first started dating in 2014, he "wined and dined" her with tea. “He’d brew up these pots of tea; it was his way of courting me,” recalls McGill, who admits to not knowing much about tea at the time.
“Ali already has a mystical relationship with tea through his mother, who is Jamaican. They always had tea in his household. So tea was kind of his way of courting me...I totally got suckered into it all,” she says with a laugh.
“I had only known tea in a teabag,” she adds with a chuckle. “Now, yes, I am one of those people who has to have loose tea. With loose tea, you can see the tea in all its drama -- I won’t go back to the teabag!”
Tea courting led to a business idea. “We saw getting to know each other over tea as something that would be great to introduce others to,” she recalls. “It was also a great joint venture.”
They started prepping for their business. In 2015, Wright became a certified tea sommelier. In 2016 the couple began organizing their business and Wright created original blends for their brand.
“From then on, our dates after this we would tea-hopping -- it was part dating and part espionage,” she says about checking out the potential competition.
For McGill going into business with her husband-to-be was nature. “With couples, you don’t have to fake it,” she says. “This is the first time I am truly my authentic self; I would say the same for him. In the professional world, you have restrictions and you have to work within those boundaries. Having our own business allows us to voice our concerns quicker and leads us to a resolution sooner. We can also be more creative.”
McGill also finds their work styles sync. “I like to say, he’s the dreamer, I’m the driver,” notes McGill.
They opened an online version of Brooklyn Tea in 2017, intending to have a brick and mortar, which they did open in 2018 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Bed-Stuy was their first choice. McGill has worked in the neighborhood as a teacher and had fallen in love with the area.
Today, Brooklyn Tea serves more than 60 tea varieties, delicious pastries, and tranquil vibes. Their shop is full of positive energy and a welcoming spirit.
“We try to take the pretentiousness out of tea,” says McGill, though they also encourage new tea drinkers to learn more about tea.
Once the store opened, the entrepreneurial pair had people waiting in line out the door. They developed a local client and a friendly relationship with their customers. They also listen to their customer’s suggestions.
“We fought tooth and nail not to have food-- we were going to be only tea and light pastry. But this didn’t work for our clientele. They wanted food. And our customers are not shy; they let us know they wanted food,” recalls McGill. So eight months into the opening they started to offer a food menu that in addition to pastries includes such items as vegan waffles, organic English Muffins, vegan sausage. And of course, cookies adorned with the face of late Brooklyn rap icon Biggie Smalls.
All was going well for Brooklyn Tea until the covid-19 pandemic. “Covid was definitely a bummer in the beginning. It was everything every small business says --gut-wrenching,” shares McGill.
Brooklyn Tea cut staff hours but stayed opened seven days a week. “We had customers who would stop by to buy from us just to make sure we stayed open,” says McGill. “Many of them would say it was their one venture outside for the day.”
Still, McGill and Wright had to reexamine their business model. They began to refocus on online sales and examined the needs of their customers.
“We realized that our customer wasn’t looking to socialize, they wanted a tangible way to improve and take control of their health,” explains McGill.
“So we created an immunity box.” It was an instant must-have.
The immunity-boosting box includes Blueberry Rooibos tea, Healer tea, Cold Killer tea, and Ginger Turmeric tea. There's also an optional reusable stainless steel tea infuser basket.
As New York City continues to open up, Wright and McGill don’t see “indoor dining going back to normal.” But they are preparing for a different normal -- while planning their upcoming wedding.
“We want to get smarter and more efficient at online fulfillment. We want to continue to figure out our customers' needs and evolve," says McGill.
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