There’s a lot to be said for a decent cup of tea; from a strong cup of Assam in the morning to a refreshing lemongrass in the afternoon, there’s a brew for every time and every occasion. If you’re not a coffee drinker, your options are usually limited when it comes to tea-on-the-go – it’s either Earl Grey, green or a standard builders. I love a mug of PG Tips and much as the next person but it’s always nice to have a choice and Emilie Holmes is a lady on a mission to shake up the industry. Founder of Good & Proper Tea, Emilie’s journey started from serving brews out of a retrofitted, classic 1974 Citroën-H van to running a bustling bricks and mortar cafe in Clerkenwell. Good & Proper Tea has over 29 different teas on offer (plus tea lattes and tasty hot chocolate) and serves the best sourdough crumpets you’ll ever come across. I caught up with Emilie to find out why playing the long game pays off, what to look for in a good cup of tea and why passion will always lead the way when it comes to motivation in business.
What was your initial inspiration to start Good & Proper Tea?
I don’t drink coffee and was frustrated by the quality and care given to my fellow coffee-drinkers’ drink compared to the disappointing cup I was almost always presented with when I ordered tea out! I wanted to change that by changing the way people think about and drink tea, making it a viable and exciting option for a new, more discerning tea drinker.
What are the core values at the heart of Good & Proper Tea?
‘Doing things properly’ sums it all up for us. It’s something we work by, as well as talk about outwardly. It’s means taking time to get things right, whether in sourcing the teas, choosing products to sell, serving a customer or simply sending a box out to a Wholesale partner – sometimes that means it takes longer, or is a path of more resistance, but it means nothing is by accident. It might seem simple, but there’s an honesty and authenticity to it that has earned us the trust of our customers and partners and it becomes increasingly important as we grow that it remains at the heart of how we do things.
Your product range spans black tea, oolong, green, white and herbal – where and how do you source new leaves and blends?
There’s no one way – it’s a logistical nightmare at times! We source from everywhere from China to Japan, Rwanda to India and many more in between and each of those regions are heavily nuanced which means the relationships, the process, the red tape is different from supplier to supplier, so it always as simple as going direct or not. The collection of teas is curated to cover a full flavour spectrum between the different tea types, while keeping it edited enough that it’s exciting without being overwhelming. And because they are unblended, single origin teas, meaning the flavour is directly linked to where and how it is grown and produced, we are always looking for something delicious that best represents its type. For example, when sourcing an Assam, we will be looking for a rich, full body with notes of malt and honey – a typical flavour profile of the region and one that our customers love as a breakfast tea. So we’ll get samples in from different estates all over the region, before tasting each one with that in mind (delicious flavour comes first). Then when we find a favourite, we’ll want to know more about where it’s from.
How do you like your tea in the morning? Do you have a favourite blend?
Like most of the UK, I still start every day with a black tea – usually an Assam or perhaps a Rwandan black tea if I want something a bit less punchy. Always loose leaf, brewed in my favourite glass pot in my kitchen at home. It’s a morning ritual!
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since starting your business?
The challenges come thick and fast but change all the time! The biggest is probably one that never goes away, but the anxiety that comes with running a business. Your drive to make it a success and your ambition for where you want to take it is all tied up with so much emotion that at times it is difficult to not let the highs and lows of the business rollercoaster become your own highs and lows! It’s inevitable, but also an important part of what keeps you motivated, so although it can be overwhelming at times, it’s also what keeps you pushing forward.
What has been the most rewarding thing about starting your own business?
Having a team of people around you who are passionate as you are about where we can take the business.
From one girl boss to another, what advice would you give you other women wanting to start their own business?
I always say that the hardest part is starting, as the task in front of you is too big a mountain to climb. So instead of sitting at your kitchen table thinking ‘right, how do I start building a tea business’ you instead make a list of actions, like ‘contact tea farms, order paper cup samples’ or much more mundane things and suddenly you’re doing it. You start to get responses from suppliers, samples in the post and all of a sudden it’s tangible and there’s momentum. It’s a lot less scary and that inertia is otherwise a killer.
What is your favourite part of working for yourself?
The creativity that it allows you – if you suddenly daydream about how you’d like to do something or a new idea you have, you have the power to make it happen!
As well as a weekly pop-up at Brockley Market, you have a permanent site in Clerkenwell that serves delicious tea and great brunch dishes, how do you balance work/home life?
It’s always a challenge, but I now try to keep weekends ring-fenced as personal time, for friends and family. In the early years there was no such thing as a weekend, but as the responsibilities grow it has become more important to be as clear and focused as possible for the week ahead, which means downtime is essential. I might do some calm work at home in my own time, but it is important that it feels separate from the whirlwind of the week. I have benefited hugely from yoga and meditation too but sadly am terrible at keeping up with it!
The market scene can be physically and mentally tough, especially during winter, has this impacted how you operate as a business?
Well the van is now not the only part of the business, so it is less of an issue that it is seasonal, but in the early days winters were brutal! The peak season in the Tea Bar is September to April, while the markets are most lucrative May to September, so it’s now a good balance.
What are your future goals for the company?
We’ve got big ideas as a team and think there is a huge opportunity in tea as the market changes and grows. We hope to see more Good & Proper Tea Bars in London and beyond, but it’s no longer relevant to be solely bricks-and-mortar retailers – we’re building a tea brand ultimately, and that means we need to be wherever our customers are, so we sell online, offline, to our Wholesale partners and hopefully into retail too at some point. All of it working towards the same mission of showcasing how good tea can be, when it’s done properly.
What do you enjoy doing to relax after a stressful day?
I love eating out with friends, but if it’s been a long day just cooking something delicious with my husband at home and maybe watching a film.
What is your favourite meal of the day?
Breakfast. I look forward to it every morning!
Where are your favourite places to eat out?
London is so spoiling that it’s impossible to choose, but for local easy dinner I’ll rarely say not to a Mamma Dough pizza, but if going out with friends I have recently loved Berber & Q, The Barbary and Dishoom to name but a few!
If we came over for dinner, what would you serve us and what tea would we drink?
I’d probably give you some kind of fish dish or maybe a lamb tagine? Followed by a pot of lemongrass to wind down after the meal.
Besides loose leaf teas and tasty brunch dishes, are there any specific ingredients/foods you couldn’t live without?
I’ve got a bit of a peanut butter problem at the moment (!) – can’t seem to get enough, but I’m 6 months pregnant so I’m hoping it’s a phase! Those giant Pip & Nut tubs go down way too quickly…