In the U.S., coffee is the widely accepted default for a quick pick-me-up, and the proof is everywhere — take a quick stroll in any major city, and you’ll be hard-pressed to go a block without encountering one of the country’s 15,000-plus Starbucks locations or an independent coffee shop. Tea, on the other hand, has yet to fully integrate itself into American culture.
According to Firebelly Tea co-founder David Segal, that’s because the drink still struggles against outdated perceptions. When people think of tea, they frequently think of artificial flavors and unpleasant sweetness, not to mention stuffy afternoons spent over “Great Aunt Carol’s bridge tea.” As a tea connoisseur, however, Segal is on a mission to give tea’s public image a much-needed makeover.
“It’s fitting that my first interview on this brand is with Entrepreneur,” Segal says. “Tea really is for entrepreneurs. Coffee is corporate America’s drink, and tea is for the movers and shakers, the creators, people that are able to see past the stereotypes to understand the real qualities of something.
“Here you have this beverage that energizes, relaxes, rejuvenates, has so many benefits, so many different flavors that you can create with it,” Segal continues. “And yet it’s under-consumed in North America. It’s under-utilized. I think in many ways coffee represents a centralized culture, whereas tea has more of a decentralized culture to it.”
Segal was formerly the “David” of DavidsTea
It’s not Segal’s first foray into the business of tea; he was previously the “David” of DavidsTea. Back in 2008, he co-founded the company in Toronto, growing it from a boutique business selling loose-leaf teas to a publicly traded company with nearly 200 stores across North America. But when infighting made it hard to concentrate on what Segal loves most — tea and the customer experience — he decided to move on in 2016.
Segal then launched Mad Radish, the quick-service restaurant concept offering healthy, gourmet fast foods, in Canada, noting that the healthy fast-food industry there is about 10 to 15 years behind the one in the U.S. Segal thought he was done with the business of tea, but that changed when he befriended Shopify president Harley Finkelstein.
When Finkelstein mentioned that his afternoon coffee was keeping him up at night, Segal decided to curate a tea collection for him. He contacted some of the best green tea producers he knew, confident that Finkelstein would become a tea convert once he tried it and experienced its “sustained energy” effect — so different from the “peak and crash” associated with coffee.
Image Credit: Kate Ince
Firebelly strives to end America’s exclusive relationship with coffee
Just as Segal predicted, Finkelstein fell in love with tea and wondered why more people weren’t drinking it. Segal was excited, ready to get back in the game and exercise his tea-design skills — with a modern twist appealing enough to quash America’s coffee obsession.
Segal and Finkelstein decided to co-found Firebelly, a line of natural, pure tea and tea blends curated for the 21st century, with an emphasis on sustainability. Firebelly sources its tea from farm producers across the globe and uses compostable packaging.
In addition to designing well-balanced blends like “The Crowd Pleaser,” which brings together black tea, vanilla, almond and sweet blackberry leaves, and “Warm & Toasty,” which boasts genmaicha matcha, cinnamon, liquorice root, roasted green tea and star anise, Firebelly offers a line of accessories that merges modern design with great functionality.
And the boxes of tea themselves, designed in partnership with Joe Doucet, are meant to be displayed — they resemble the spines of books on a shelf, and the colors correspond to the shade the tea within should be once brewed.
Image Credit: Kate Ince
A modern approach to the business of tea
Although DavidsTea offers over 150 varieties of tea, Firebelly’s smaller offering (20 flavors at launch) helps people avoid analysis paralysis and gives them a chance to fall in love with the flavors.
“These are teas that get better every time you drink them,” Segal says. “They’re good the first time you have a cup, they’re better the second time, and they’re even better the third. We want to make sure that we keep a really great line of our basic SKUs, so that when you fall in love with them, you can still find them with us.”
The number of varieties isn’t the only thing that will be different from a business standpoint: DavidsTea was distributed in physical stores, but Firebelly will be an entirely direct-to-consumer product, though Segal hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a retail setting that could provide a “tea experience.” “I don’t think that physical stores are needed for distribution in the way that they once were,” Segal says, “but they certainly add a lot of value when it comes to creating experiences.”
For now, Segal hopes that more people start to enjoy the delicious taste and benefits tea has to offer, adding it to their regular beverage rotation.
“We’re not saying, ‘Drop your morning coffee or your Friday night beer or wine,’” Segal says. “I like a good drink on a Friday as much as the next person, but on a Tuesday night, when you’re hanging with your friends, if you’re an ambitious person, you don’t necessarily want to have drinks. It’s nice to have a tea.”