Erin Bradley is the President of Tea By Two, a boutique tea house in Bel Air, Maryland. Erin, along with her business partner Janet Meyers, spoke with us about their business, what its like to work with a friend, and how their OnDeck financing helped them spread their love of tea far and wide.
Tell us about how you started the business and how you came up with the name Tea By Two.
Janet and I love tea, and we began having tea at different places, just for fun, and found that we really loved it. We loved the three-tiered stand, the little sandwiches, and the different pots of tea, and all the china.
Then we decided, “Hey, I think we could do this.” We both wanted to do something different than what we were doing. We actually both worked together at the same company for about 20 years. We decided to jump out on our own, and our biggest dream was to just serve tea to the masses. Bring something that we really loved to do out to everyone, and in our area, in Bel Air, there really wasn’t anything like this. We thought that people would really love this type of stopping, pausing their hectic lives, and getting to just relate to each other. Just a different, more unique type of place for people to get together.
We were sitting around one day, and we had a long list of names for the business. And a friend of ours said, “Well what about Tea for Two?” And then she said, “No, wait. Tea by Two because it’s two of you.” And it really stuck. It’s seemed to really fit because of who Janet and I are. This will be our 18th year in business.
What’s it like going into business with your friend?
I think one of the reasons that we have been successful is that Janet and I are complete opposites. The things that Janet likes to do I do not like to do, and the things that I like to do she really runs away from. So, we don’t really fight over things. We don’t fight very much at all. There is just no reason to because when we have an issue or a challenge or even just something we to accomplish, we can break it down and say, “I’ll do this.” She’ll say, “I’ll do this,” and we’re happy because we both pick the thing we enjoy, and neither of us is struggling to do something the other one likes. I think it’s been the best part of us being co-owners.
Before we opened, we were going to some classes and talking to people about having a business. They kept saying to us, “Are you sure you want to do a partnership? You sure you want to do this together because so many partnerships fail?” And we had no concern because we knew that we could handle working together.
What services or products do you offer your customers?
We like to say we help reduce stress in two hours or less. We provide a place for people, not just women but anyone, to come and put aside their daily stresses and sit down for tea. Our main product is afternoon tea, which also includes scones, finger sandwiches, and finger desserts. We also have some other items on the menu, but the main thing that we do is tea.
We have over 70 varieties of tea to choose from, so we guarantee that you’re going to love your tea. And if you don’t like it, you send it back and we make you something else. So, everyone gets a chance to have as much tea as they like and to find that special flavor that is their favorite. We get most of our teas, 90 percent of them, from a tea blender who is local to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We do have a few other small sources, but they mostly come from overseas.
We also have items in our gift shop: teapots or anything else you need that goes with tea.
What do you love most about being a business owner, especially in this industry? What do you like about doing this?
Oh gosh, the tea industry is so exciting! In the United States, it was never as big as it was in Europe. And recently, in probably the past 10 to 20 years, tea has really taken off. So, we feel like we hit on a niche that we weren’t really expecting. We just were doing something we loved but found that it really is a bit of a niche in the restaurant industry. And we have met so many people in the tea industry across the country. We’re a part of a tea association of tea business in four states, and we meet quarterly. It is so exciting to be around other people that do what we do, understand the ups and downs, and understand the product that we produce and serve to our customers.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a business owner?
The biggest challenge we have found recently is cash flow. In the restaurant industry, that’s a challenge anyway. As a small boutique restaurant, where our employees are mostly all part-time and the staff is small, the cash flow part is probably our biggest issue. And we run the gift shop, which helps with the restaurant; however, we often have to pay for all of the things in the gift shop before a customer comes in, so those cash flow problems can add up.
We’ve been growing steadily, however. We planned to grow slowly because most businesses do fail when they try to grow too quickly. So we set off with the mindset of, “We are going to grow slowly.” We have increased our product line. We’ve started selling our scones wholesale to local coffee shops. We are going out and doing festivals. We are getting to capacity in terms of our seating here, and we do have an online store now that we have been running for about five years. That has started to really take off across the country. We mostly sold to local Maryland people, but now I’m getting orders nationally. We have grown quite a bit since our first day.
Throughout the summer, how does your business change?
Our business changes completely in the summer. In the fall and winter, our busiest days are Friday and Saturday. Tuesday through Wednesday are moderate. But in the summer, it completely flips. Our Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays are very busy, and Friday and Saturday are slower. And we see a different customer in the summer because schools are closed, and people are on vacation. Grandma is in town, and she wants to bring the kids to tea, so it’s really a very different situation. And then some of regular winter customers stay away in the summer and they come back in the fall.
We serve hot tea all year. We probably do serve a few more cold drinks in the summer, but I don’t see a big difference. People come in and want their hot pot of tea no matter the season, so we serve roughly the same amount all year around.
What does the future hold for Tea By Two?
We’ve seen a huge growth potential in our online business. We see great potential in our wholesale business, and just being right here in Bel Air we see such a potential for expanding this property. We’d like to do more onsite and offsite events. I really feel in our business right now we are on this precipice of being able to burst out and really take over this market.
What’s it been like looking for financing?
It’s very challenging to find financing as a small business owner. When we first opened, we even had difficulty getting a business credit card. A lot of places didn’t want to give one, and it’s very difficult to have to pay all your vendors on a cash basis. As we grew, we could get a little bit of financing, but we had difficulty getting a line of credit or a loan. A lot of banks don’t really like restaurants because of the nature of our business. I mean it makes sense. So when OnDeck came along, it was really just a godsend. We were so grateful to have the opportunity to access some capital through OnDeck.
Why did you finally choose OnDeck? What makes it different from other lenders?
OnDeck was different because I felt like the really understood who we were. They understood that we were small. They knew some of the challenges that we face, and I felt like our representatives that we worked with really cared about what we were doing and where we were going with our money.
We came back to OnDeck for our second and third infusions of capital because they are so easy. One of the things that really impressed me about OnDeck is that my customer service rep, Chris, I’ve had him for three straight years. He contacts me regularly just to see how we are doing, not to sell me anything, just to say, “How’s everything going?” The way that they structure the payments, everything is so simple, and we get our money the next day, so it’s just so easy and comfortable. I’m sort of a loyalty kind of person – if I feel good about you and feel that you are doing right by me, I have no reason to look anywhere else, and I feel that way about OnDeck.
If somebody was looking into OnDeck, I would probably tell them that they couldn’t go wrong. OnDeck is very easy to deal with. They take care of you, and as a small business, when you step out into the financing world, you feel like everybody wants to treat you like a huge business, and OnDeck doesn’t do that. They totally get you. They totally understand all of your challenges. I would say to someone who is looking to get financing, go with OnDeck because I really think they would not find a better option.