THUNDER BAY — Denise Atkinson hasn’t literally travelled the whole world, it just feels that way sometimes.
The marketing power of the internet has allowed the Thunder Bay entrepreneur to extend the reach of her burgeoning artisanal tea business well beyond Northwestern Ontario and the confines of a storefront.
Ironically, when Atkinson started Tea Horse about five years ago, it was inside a traditional store in Thunder Bay’s trendy Bay Street neighbourhood.
But operating a “bricks and mortar” outlet proved to be time consuming and expensive to boot.
“It’s really tough to make a living in retail,” Atkinson recalled Tuesday.
She says the decision to sell her tea products through e-commerce venues and commercial distributors paid off, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic re-directed many consumers to retail websites instead of shopping malls.
“You can do a lot with good photography and (product) descriptions,” she said. “I wouldn’t have a storefront again.”
Having a unique product also helps, especially in an industry which seems a bit crowded by big commercial brands.
Customers “know who we are,” said Atkinson, who operates her business out of her home with her partner, Marc Bohemier.
“It’s a big market, but it’s a small world when it comes to premium tea.”
Tea Horse’s whole leaf tea takes roasted wild rice harvested in Northern Ontario or northern Manitoba, and combines it with traditional Japanese green tea. The result is “a nutty, earthy flavour” that Atkinson characterizes as a “fusion of two cultures.”
“Our products are very different — that’s how we stand out,” she said.
Unlike conventional tea that’s compressed in tiny bags, the whole leaf version is left loose.
Tea Horse products are assembled and packaged in a house that’s been retrofitted to keep the business separate from home life.
Atkinson, who is Indigenous, credits the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, as well as Thunder Bay’s Paro Centre for Women’s Enterprise, for providing mentoring and “opening doors.”
More information about Tea Horse and its variety of teas can be found online at teahorse.ca.
The Chronical Journal