Stories of entrepreneurship, startups, and small businesses are some of my favorite things to read. There are a few common denominators to these stories. Usually, it starts with a desk tucked away in tiny corner of someone’s house, a laptop, and, most importantly, a big idea. Often, the decision to start a new business comes at a crossroads in the person’s life, and the concept is something that they’ve been thinking about for years. What I admire most about entrepreneurs is their bravery – you have to be so courageous to leave a steady, stable way of life to leap into the unknown. What draws me back to these stories time and time again is the unique circumstances under which the business came to life; no two are ever the same.
Sheila and Olivia Kahler, the co-founders of the luxury tea company Nelson & George, are two of the most interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. This multi-talented mother-daughter duo is just fascinating! They’ve lived all over the world, speak several languages, and have an incredible variety of interests, apart from their passion for tea. Their dreamy Instagram feed reflects their love for tea, as well as their international lifestyles spanning from Paris to their headquarters in Kittery, Maine, and beyond! – it is one of my favorite accounts to follow. “American Purveyors of Fine Tea,” the Kahler women have a lot to say about tea, owning a business, and how their paths brought them to this exciting venture.
his interview has been divided into two parts. Tune in next Friday for part 2!
NB: This interview is to be enjoyed with your favorite cup of tea.
I love the name of your company! How did you decide on Nelson & George?
Olivia: We wanted to create a specifically American brand of tea – a tea company that is a contemporary classic yet celebrates America’s story. George Washington and the founding fathers came to mind first, but we also wanted to celebrate stories of the lesser known, yet also important, heroes. We both love animals, so we thought it would be great to celebrate an animal that was an important part of our history. Nelson was George Washington’s primary horse in the Revolutionary War, and is said to have been very courageous during battles. Nelson and George felt like a timeless classic that imparts a sense of history, and a name that could work well in the different settings, which we envision our tea will be sold.
You two are an extraordinary mother-daughter duo to run the company side-by-side with complementary strengths. Sheila, what inspired you to delve into the world of tea? Was it difficult to become a tea sommelier – and can you share with us exactly what it means to be one?
First, let me just state what a privilege it is to be able to be in business with my daughter! How fortunate that we found common ground on the topic of tea to explore and share with the world.
Frankly, I believe I really first became aware of tea when I studied herbalism years ago. Then, I was brewing and drinking – and recommending! – various herbal teas for various health benefits. Somehow later on, while living in Germany, I developed a love for green tea in particular, though I occasionally drink black: I never looked back since! I had become known in my family for my love of green tea (and consequently received a lot of it and tea accoutrements as birthday and mother’s day gifts! It is my nature to study those topics that interest me, especially relative to health and food, so I dove into the topic of tea by reading many books on it. Just coincidentally last year while on vacation, I saw an ad in the local paper offering a course leading to a Tea Sommelier designation, given by a super knowledgeable Tea Master, Frankee Muller from the ITMA (the International Tea Masters Association, the gold standard in the industry). I saw this as a “meant -to- be” kind of circumstance as it was really so random! So, I grabbed the chance since I thought it would be good to have an official recognition for my studies. The timing of setting up a business with my daughter Olivia was perfect, as Olivia was at that point in her life where she wanted to venture out a little bit and as she states, start a sideline business of her own. The course was very comprehensive and gave me a solid foundation for my understanding of all facets of tea, though I see it unofficially as “just opening the door” to this most fascinating and very relevant world of tea!
Olivia, you are an incredibly talented professional opera singer. I can imagine you’ve enjoyed several cups of tea (possibly with lemon and honey!) for your voice but what drew you to tea as a professional venture?
Thank you! Opera was my first passion, and I feel very blessed that I have been able to have it in my life, and have the outlet for my own artistic expression. And you are right, even before my mom became a tea sommelier, I have always enjoyed a cup of tea. I decided last year that I would like to start my own business, and as my mom and I work very well together, she was my first choice as a business partner. I love discovering fine food and drink, and when mom got her Tea Sommelier certification, I became very interested in the world of tea. Although I have always loved tea, I had no idea how vast and fascinating the world of tea was. The complexity of the flavors, the variety, and the health benefits motivated me to want to introduce the tea to my friends and family. Last year as a precursor to my business, I started a blog on coffee shops, as I travel often for opera and enjoyed finding a cozy spot for tea, coffee and people watch. I noticed that often – and especially in the US – coffee was given full attention, while tea was often somewhat of an afterthought. The coffeehouses that I was visiting could tell me which farm the coffee came from, the specific flavor profile, where the coffee was roasted, etc…but teas were not shown the same attention. Perhaps because our relationship with tea started off with some difficulty (during the Revolutionary War), I felt that America was especially limited in our scope of knowledge of tea, specifically of tea in the true sense of the word as in from the tea plant from which comes black, green, white….
Let’s talk about your teas. How do you decide which blends to include in your collections? From where are they sourced?
When deciding what teas we wanted to include in our initial collection of 36 teas, we set the following criteria, as we wanted to provide the highest grade premium teas while ensuring that our company matched our values:
While most people have heard of Earl Grey and English Breakfast, as we mentioned earlier, we want to specifically introduce teas that are relatively unknown, and/or very rare…while carry the best version of some of the well-known classics.
We wanted the absolute top quality of each tea so that our customers can enjoy the best version of the tea they are about to enjoy. As with other fine foods, the different grades greatly affect the taste. Our teas come from the best farms we have found, and a tea master monitors the processing of most of our teas.
Both for the benefit of our health and the health of the planet, we personally consume an almost exclusively organic diet, and as we wanted our values reflected in our company, this was an important aspect we wanted to include at Nelson and George. We also care about the quality of life that the producers of our tea have. While we have not been able to personally visit all of the farms which supply our tea, we source our tea from either small farms where the workers are paid fair wages and work in acceptable conditions, or we purchase our tea from farms which are fair trade certified.
We also emphasize pure teas, rather than blends, as we think that the pure expression of a certain method of processing creates a fascinating cup of tea, and we often do not want to change the pure expression that the tea master has carefully crafted. Sadly, blends are often created to mask or ameliorate a tea that is lower quality and therefore less enjoyable in its pure form. The blends that we do carry are all made from exceptional quality tea, or herbs. Higher-grade teas have also been found to have more health benefits when compared to a lower quality version of the same type of tea…so both our bodies and our palate are equally satisfied.
Our teas are sourced from the area my Mom has decided produces the best expression of that tea.
This equates to our teas being sourced primarily sourced from our trusted buyers and tea masters in Asia. Tea was born there, and it continues to set the standard – especially when referring to specific processing methods. A few of our teas – such as our Rooibos, “The Summer,” – come from Africa. We are currently testing a few teas, which come from America tea farms (yes, a few exist!), and hope that we can find one which matches our taste and quality standards.
One of the things I most admire about your company is that you focus on “organically grown, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly grown, processed and packaged products.” Why was it important to you that your company concentrates on these elements, and how do you go about making sure that your teas fit these criteria?
Olivia: We wanted to create a company that reflects both our values and we hope the values of our consumers. We place importance on being informed consumers, and being aware the impact our wallet is having on the health of others and the planet. A lot the destruction caused by larger companies would end, and does end, when consumers demand it by speaking with their wallets. While it might mean a decrease in our profits, and a higher price tag at times for the consumer, it was only logical to us to create a company from which we would want to buy our tea. We also emphasize slowing down and taking time to enjoy each cup of tea…and we don’t think it would be as enjoyable knowing the tea was having a negative impact on either the earth or the people who pick and process it!
We ensure these criteria are met by adhering to our guidelines mentioned in question three when selecting our teas. At our HQ in Kittery, Maine, we do our best to reduce our environmental impact in our office by reducing, recycling or re-using any of our waste. Our focus is on selling teas in tins and bamboo boxes, which we hope our consumers will refill from our compostable bags. All of our packing material and boxes are sourced from EcoEnclose (http://www.ecoenclose.com/), a company also run by a fellow female entrepreneur out of Colorado. Her packing materials are recycled and compostable! At every step of the way, we strive to find the most earth friendly way of conducting our business, while maintaining a luxury experience, and ensuring the tea is delivered and stored in the ideal conditions.
The names of your different teas are so fun! Can you tell us about some of the names and why you’ve chosen them?
Sheila: We are so glad you find the names fun and interesting! Thank you! It was Olivia’s invention, and ultimately her decision which names would go with which teas, although, of course, I had to first select the kinds of teas we would carry then discuss the tea with Olivia before she was “inspired” to attach a certain name to it. I find it actually intriguing and educational having our teas associated with a particular American personality, historical figure or hero, including animals, as it causes one to pause and contemplate who that person/animal is, and why we chose he/she/it. People have always loved stories since the beginning of time: why not have a story with tea time? It causes us to pause perhaps a little longer, and in some cases, give silent homage to the person/animal who might have had such a heroic or just positive influence on our history, indeed in some cases, influence on the world at large. It fosters awareness in general and respect in particular. Attaching certain figures to certain teas, Olivia tried to make a correlation between the personal attributes of the person/animal and the tea’s own profile: as relates to the leaf, the aroma and the taste. She did a great job!
Olivia: I also wanted to attach American names to our teas to make them more accessible to an American audience without diminishing their inherent value or history. Most of our teas come from Asia, and I didn’t want their names to be a point of alienation or hindrance. Naming them after Americans we admired seemed to perfect fit – it preserves a sense of respect for the tea, while combining it with a sense of respect for America. I chose first names as I also wanted tea to become part of each person’s story. You might initially be attracted to “The George” because it reminds you of George Washington, or because your son is named George. I would love it if every time you took the time to make a cup of The George it reminded you of happy memories with your son. 🙂 (Editor’s note: Absolutely! Will do!)
People may not know that part of the profits from the tea sales go to different charities. Which charities are they, and how did you decide to support those three in particular? How can we learn more about them?
Olivia: Building charity into our business model from the start was important to us! Again, we wanted to build a company that matched our values. We have not yet finalized the list of charities we will donate to, and it will most likely vary from year to year. In general, we would like to support charities which we support women, animals, veterans and the earth.
Some of the charities we plan on supporting at the end of this fiscal year include:
Mr. Bones and Co. is an animal rescue charity based in NYC, and founded by my former boss. With this personal contact, I am sure that they money receive is put to good use, and they have already done amazing work in the NYC area.
Kiva, a company that provides micro loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world, is one of the charities we have worked with on a personal level before, and love their concept.
Greenpeace has done amazing environmental work, and continues to be a great watch dog to ensure companies are not creating irreversible damage to the planet.
My ultimate dream is to build the Nelson and George animal rescue center with an animal based program for Veterans with PTSD.
There is a huge tea market. What sets you apart from the rest of the tea companies (besides your beautiful packaging and imagery)?
Sheila: Yes! You are right, the tea market is quite large now, though in the grand scheme of things, when one considers:
1) Quality – highest grade, small family farms, sustainability
2) American market (the potential per capita tea consumption) and, just for instance
3) The quickly growing tea trend at the moment
Then one can imagine that there is a great deal of “room” for say, our brand! Those three points, as well as the mother-daughter aspect, as well as the “honoring” if you will the American story from its inception to current time as well as heroic animals and their stories, lets us think that there is indeed a niche for our business…while there may quite a few tea businesses out there, not many can boast very high quality and resourcing from small tea gardens, just to use point number one as an example.
Olivia: Yes, I agree with Mom, and also would add that, as I have mentioned before, we did not find a brand of tea that provided specifically a luxury American experience that met all of our standards. When I would buy tea for Mom for her birthday or Christmas, I would often buy it months ahead of time in either London or Paris, as the brands available there matched the quality and tea experience Mom so adored.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next Friday! In the meantime, you can follow Nelson & George on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For those of you in the US, you can order your tea via the Nelson & George site. International shipping to come soon!