Through The Lens: Birdhouse Tea Company
Ellie Grace snaps The Birdhouse Tea Company.
Today I spent my day with mother and daughter business partners, Rebecca and Julie, at Birdhouse Tea Company. They started their business in August 2013 and it’s incredible to see just how far they’ve come in such a short space of time and boy do they have some great plans for the future too.
I started my day by meeting up with Rebecca in the Winter Gardens where she was looking after the pop-up shop there. I thought it was just a pop-up shop of her stuff but was amazed to see that it was actually a lot of other people’s stuff as well. The shop was organised by Common People and Sheffield’s Council, both of which are non-profit organisations and have arranged for 14 independent makers to pay (not very much may I add) to have a section of the pop-up for their stuff. The only other thing they do in return is to be the shopkeeper for 3 half day shifts over the 2 weeks that the shop is up. I think this is an absolutely wonderful idea as usually the organisers profit off this sort of thing but the only people that benefit from this are each of the independent makers and the customers who purchase these wonderful things. I loved that everything in the shop was very Sheffield orientated and made right here in the city – something we should be proud of as Sheffielders.
Watching Rebecca in the shop proved that she had a clear knowledge of marketing and customer service, which is a huge contributor to her business. It was really good to start my day with her here as it felt great that she was supported by a community as well as supporting others in the community herself. The shop was incredibly busy actually which was great to see so I saved most of my questions for the taxi ride to her shop in Nether Edge, and in the shop itself, as it was her day off and the shop was closed so I could get a good snoop around.
My first question was “why tea?” To which she responded with “why not?” Well that told me, why not ey? Everyone likes a good cuppa so why not! Rebecca studied Media at university and whilst she was studying she worked in Starbucks, so she has always worked around beverages and noticed a huge gap in the market for tea. Everyone was so coffee obsessed people had forgotten about those little leaves that bring us so much joy in a mug. She studied Japanese for a year and in particular the art of tea ceremonies out there, which is also called The Way of Tea. Alongside with this was also a tea course down in London which Rebecca thought so highly of that she sent her mother, Julie, down to do the same course. Which brings us to Julie herself and her contribution to the tea, not only is Julie the master of paperwork for Birdhouse, but she is also studying to be a herbal nutritionist. So with Rebecca’s extensive knowledge of tea and Julie’s knowledge of herbs and nutrition, there’s only one thing left to do… blend!
When we pulled up to the shop, Rebecca noticed the ‘We are Open!” sign which was odd to say that they were supposed to be closed. But while her mum was tidying the shop and doing some stickering customers were waiting outside and the logical thing to do was to let them in! So welcome to their day off, working since 8 and then serving customers in their closed shop until, I believe, 4pm. I can completely sympathise with this, I would love to meet a business owner that actually gets a day off. So I sat down with my ginger bread tea and a peanut butter macaroon and took in my surroundings before continuing with my day, it’s a tough job you know, a tea break is pretty much compulsory.
While Julie was sticking lots of stickers on some newly packaged tea, which apparently there is an art to, I asked a few questions about the area in which the shop was in, the other things besides tea that were in the shop and of course, those tasty looking awards on the shelf. I’ve been part of a small community myself and I’m very aware of the communities around Sheffield at the moment so it was lovely to hear that around Nether Edge the community feel continues, and continues strongly. The surrounding shops all know each other and help each other out, it was lovely to see that there was even a bunch of flowers on display which were provided by the nearby flower shop, Moss & Clover. The one product that stood out the most the macaroon that I ate. Not only did it taste so wonderful but they were made by disadvantaged young adults – I’ll let her off that these aren’t made in Sheffield as they were made with such wonderful ethics. In the shop you’ll find local wonders like coffee from Foundry, granola from Forager, products from Martha and Hepsie and treats from Tipples Tails. There were also some great hand made chocolates from Chocolly which Birdhouse had teamed up with to make some delicious tea chocolates. There are a lot of collaborations from this company, the most visual is that from Sarah Abbott, a local artist. She is responsible for the logo of Birdhouse tea company and each individual illustration on the tea packages, Rebecca has an idea and Sarah puts the idea on paper, perfect team work! Which brings us to those two shiny awards from Yorkshire’s Finest Taste Awards. They won two awards for having the best drinks, especially for their Yorkshire Rose drink, I mean it makes sense really for a Sheffield business to win the Yorkshire award! Both Rebecca and Julie are incredibly proud of these awards and hope that more will just keep rolling in.
To say that their doors were meant to be closed, a lot of people came through, all of which bought something so it was definitely worth their while to sacrifice their day off. I got into a nice little conversation with a lovely gentleman, he was telling me that he lives in the area and is incredibly fond of the little community and the great independent businesses that thrive here. Going back to when the Nether Edge Post Office closed he remembers the shock and outrage that surrounded this, but he never thought in a million years that a tea shop would open in its place. It was his first visit to the shop and he was impressed by the service and the shop itself. He purchased some tea for himself and some for a Christmas present, and if I’m honest I too would find it hard to buy a present from here without buying something for myself.
The only thing really left to do with Rebecca, Julie was too busy making customers happy, was to watch, and help blend some tea.
This first bit is the tea tasting part, so how exactly do they get the right blend and amounts of things? Trial and error. Apparently it takes them at least 10 goes until they get the right consistency, which is where this tea tasting kit comes in. First you put the leaves into the hot water so you can watch what the leaves are doing, then when you pour the water into the cup you can see what colour the tea will actually be, and you can then inspect what the tea leaves are doing on top of the lid. Then you just need to taste the tea and see what you think! All of these steps are incredibly important when creating the best blend and it’s amazing to see how much work actually goes into creating the perfect tea.
A customer had requested some of the sold out Christmas chocolate orange tea so we decided to make some so that I could see how their tea is blended and then packaged. First in was the Muddy Boots tea which is a blend of black tea, cocoa shells and marigold petals, followed by some rooibos tea and then it is finished off with some orange peel that is dehydrated in the shop itself. Then came the impressive bit; they hand fill all of the bags of tea, put on the stickers and write the brewing instructions on. So every single bag of tea you see has been hand made – a lot of time and effort goes into this business that I really didn’t expect.
I had such a wonderful day with Rebecca and Julie and it really opened my eyes to how much work they actually do behind the scenes. I still won’t get over the fact that they have to package hundreds of bags of tea a month, I guess we always forget that small businesses can’t afford to buy a huge machine that packages things for you. I love how well Rebecca and Julie work as a team – mother and daughter, business partners and friends. They bring totally different things to the business that there’s no wonder it works so perfectly, Julie is organised and methodic, whereas Rebecca is chaotic and creative. I’ve learned a lot about Birdhouse Tea Company today, so when I’m drinking my wonderful cup of tea I’ll remember the amount of effort, care and love that has gone into creating what is in my cup. So what’s next for Birdhouse? The beginning of 2015 will be quite exciting for them, a launch of some Beer Tea in a wonderful collaboration with Abbeydale Brewery and they’ll be making the shop into a kind of cafe where you can actually enjoy a cuppa in house. I wish them the best of luck in the future and seeing as they’re only down the road from me, I shall be popping in more often.