By Anna Guy
Calming, or invigorating. Enjoyed alone, or to bring people together. Hot, or cold.
Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water thanks to its versatility. It can be served anytime, anywhere, for any occasion. On any given day, more than one half of the North American population is drinking tea.
But these facts are not what prompted Tonia and Hatem Jahshan to start their company, Steeped Tea. Rather, it was the pure delight from a cup of loose-leaf Earl Grey de la Crème tea while on a vacation in Nova Scotia, that turned their perspective of tea around 180 degrees.
Used to the ubiquitous teabags sold in grocery stores, “I hadn’t experienced anything like it before,” Tonia says. “And that was surprising to me. I was quite surprised at how different it tasted. Fresher, not as bitter as a teabag can get. And then I thought I was so darn excited about that tea that I wanted to share it with everybody. I’m like that—if I fall in love with something, I want to share it.”
Tonia and her husband drove an extra hour to buy the tea for family and friends. Hatem recalls “It’s a wonderful experience to see the leaves unfurl in the pot, as apposed to dust—it touches every sense.”
Back at their home in Ancaster, ON, when their friends enjoyed it the same way, Tonia started to think of how steeped tea might become a company. At this time, Tonia was pregnant, and the family was looking to alleviate the demands of her full-time corporate job, and the idea to create Steeped Tea was born. Tonia’s background in direct sales helped the couple navigate their idea into a direct sales company, the premise being that consultants receive tea kits, then share them with family and friends through tea parties (or tea parteas), word-of-mouth, and through social media (but not in a retail store).
Direct sales consultants are essentially microentrepreneurs of their own. The direct sales labor pool employs more than 2,800 people and more than 882,000 direct sellers in Canada, the vast majority of whom are women looking for work with schedule flexibility, ability to meet and socialize, and earning potential.
“Three months after I started the company, I held a tea party and had a room full of about 15 to 20 women, and out of that group I booked eight parties that night. Those eight parties turned into 15, then 20 parties a month,” shares Tonia. “People loved the product, and started approaching me and saying ‘I’d love to do this with you’. I knew immediately after that that this could be popular really fast.”
“My vision for this company was to provide anything that you could have at a tea party,” says Tonia. “We offer tea, and tea accessories. We also offer additional items that have to do with relaxation, such as a bath line in the future.”
While in her third trimester with her third child, Tonia and Hatem appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. “There is something about you two”, said David Chilton, one of the Dragons, adding, “I’m in, I’m in—I’m very enthused about this model.”
“I must say its very rare in Dragons’ Den you get three offers, and some of them more than you even asked for, so you are to be commended for doing a fantastic presentation,” said Kevin O’Leary, who’s known for being withholding on his praise.
The Jahshan’s ended up accepting an investment from David Chilton and Jim Treliving. With that initial investment, time, and passion, have grown to a company with annual sales of more than $20 million in ten years, with 3,600 per cent growth over a five-year period. Their company has been featured on Profit 500 five years in a row. In 2016, Tonia earned the No. 1 spot on the 2016 W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs.
“We were at a time when we wanted to start a family, have children, and the stresses of having a corporate job is difficult when you’re pregnant,” reflects Hatem. “Tonia found something that really fit our lifestyle at that point. In the comfort of our home, able to be with our children, and go out in the evenings and having these parties and contribute to the family. This business really evolved around Tonia and our family’s needs, and it so happens there is a huge niche in the market place that fit the same stage in our life.”
“I started this company because that was the whole goal, to stay home with my family,” says Tonia. “With Hatem at my side, we set out to make premium loose-leaf tea the daily norm and create an alternative, fun income opportunity for others. We have grown a direct-selling company that empowers people to start a business of their own and become a passionate entrepreneur all while sharing a cup of tea.”
The market is evolving at the right time too. According to a report by the CBC, “a federal government study says by 2020, our nationwide tea consumption is expected to grow by 40 per cent, outpacing growth of coffee, soft drinks and alcohol consumption.”
Next on the menu for Steeped Tea is a greater push into the US market, and a goal towards the first 100,000 consultants. To do this, Steeped Tea is strengthening its executive tea, notably with the recent addition of Melanie Hayden Sparks, “a visionary leader with a wealth of business knowledge and acumen to take the company to the next level,” as President.
Despite the massive acceleration of Steeped Tea, the Jahshans never lose site of what is at the core of their company; the sensory experience and the ritual of an exquisite loose-leaf tea.
“Tea has always been comforting,” says Tonia. Hatem adds, “It’s who you share it with.”