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A Journey Like No Other

I have been going through closets lately with that old-fashioned spring cleaning bug. Having recently helped my mom and step-dad move to a Community Care retirement home here in Charlottetown, I became well aware of my heritage in the form of books, diaries, family Bibles, letters written over the years and recipes from at least as far back as my childhood and my mom's childhood! My mom kept everything! And she did a good job at hiding things far back in closets and chests. There were pictures upon pictures of my grandmother in her high school days (early 20th century) up to my own grandchildren graduating from kindergarten in the present! 

In my attack on one closet in my apartment, I found some 'old' photos of Lady Baker's Tea Trolley business activities from as far back as 2001 when I began my catering service to the elderly in Charlotte, NC. I was reminded of the hard work during the beginning few months of trying to start a business. I had the passion but not much else! With the passion, eventually came some education (community college and online), experience, a little earned money (I never charged enough), and more passion! I was determined I did not have to have money to make money and I was going to prove it...not!

It started in Charlotte, NC with a catering van and a visit from my Mom who came along for the ride a few times. While sitting at a red light, I got a call from the gentleman in the car behind me requesting an afternoon tea for his wife!

My plan was mostly for a hospitality ministry to the elderly and home-bound. Word got out through many cold calls which I made most hesitantly. Eventually I had private clients who hired me monthly and retirement communities who asked me to bring tea time for special occasions.

This very special lady in the photo below enjoyed her tea times with several friends from different groups she belonged to when she was more mobile. Her nephew hired me to send out invitations to her many friends to visit each month. What a treat that was for me! Nona had been a world traveller with exotic experiences and so those times were cherished by all.

Retirement Communities were quite delightful too, as many loved to dress up for afternoon tea. Thanks to some volunteers who donned their tea attire to help me out when there were more than twelve to serve!

There were many tea occasions but especially fun were the teas I held at two heritage homes in North Carolina. The Reid House and Homeleigh were in very different historical settings, but both had the ambience for themed teas like a Literary Tea, an Anne of Green Gables Tea, a Girls and Dolls Tea, a My Fair Lady Tea and many more. These were fun to research for and prepare the menus, but when I think back now to the energy required, I am quite overwhelmed. 

My move back to Prince Edward Island in the fall of 2006 gave me a short respite from catering. I drank lots of tea, with family and a close friend or two who knew I needed comfort when going through a divorce. After a while I started to feel the passion again and my thoughts turned to Heritage Beaconsfield Carriage House as the ideal place to host tea times. But alas, climbing over snowbanks and slipping on ice weren't conducive for fine-china catering though we did have a great time.

Over the five years in the hospitality industry, I had time to learn a lot about the commodity of tea itself. I found it quite fascinating and wanted to try different types of teas from around the world. I was so lucky to find an opening at the Charlottetown Farmers' Market in December 2007. I incorporated my business  and took the plunge while taking a tutorial from an established tea company. I think I started with 16 types of tea and I was so happy to learn that other local folks were interested too! But because I doubted I would be able to sell enough tea to pay the bills, I baked cookies and scones for the first few years. Visually, I was a black and white business! I printed the labels myself which was an inexpensive trial run.

Then I was lured by the idea of having a tea room at Avonlea Village when it was still an historic village with actors portraying the roles in the book, Anne of Green Gables. That summer I was set up in the old manse where during my first afternoon tea, I blew the breakers trying to boil too much water for the teapots. That was embarrassing and many reservations had to be cancelled last minute by me. No power, no tea! Though the electrical issues eventually got resolved, I must admit, the romance had suffered a little! The second day of afternoon tea, my hired dishwasher had an asthma attack and went to the hospital. A wonderful couple visiting from Maine asked me if they could help. They were tea guests but saw the dilemma I was in, with people waiting their turn to sit for afternoon tea. That was a bittersweet moment as I was about to cancel more reservations!

The second summer I moved to the lunch cafe across the red dirt road in the village. My dream of having a quaint tea room suddenly became a harsh reality of hiring employees, adding on vacation pay, EI, CPP and sending reports into the Canada Revenue Agency, regular environmental health check-ups making sure I was following all the rules, finding wholesale companies who would supply me with product that would run out far too quickly, registering with the WCB in case an employee got injured and baking and cooking non-stop! By the end of the summer, I was exhausted but so thankful to the Avonlea management for giving me the opportunity to learn just how hard it was to run a food business. Below, serving tea, is Shannon who at that time was a student and now a wife, mother and musician who has come back to work for me in a totally different capacity.

As if I had not learned my lesson, I accepted an offer the following summer to set up a Tea Bar at Founders Hall that housed the Charlottetown Tourism Bureau by the waterfront. I couldn't keep up with all the baking so I did the unthinkable and bought my goods from a bakery which agreed to use my recipes. This was yet another summer challenge. I had to be open all the hours of the tourist bureau which meant I had to have employees in the evening when most folks aren't looking for a cup of tea to drink! I also came to understand that cruise shippers just wanted to get on the road. Sitting for tea was not a priority. Ahhh...the business of tea was taking on meaning that didn't match the recurring dream that accompanied me in la-la land!

By this time I graduated from black and white to black and Island red. And I had just won the Best New Product award at the PEI Buyers Market for my post-tea idea which had only just begun.

                         Me and my assistant, Jan who came to my rescue!

 

The Farmers' Market was becoming busier and soon a local cafe asked me if I would sell bulk tea wholesale as they would like to serve it. Why not? Maybe this would be a less labour intensive endeavor to get my specialty teas out there. I continued selling baked goods until the tea sales really picked up. Hanging up the oven mitts was much easier than I thought it would be. 

I was still working out of my apartment and a certified kitchen but as the wholesale tea requests came in, I had to find something bigger than my spare room. Packages of tea were falling out of every cupboard! I moved to one place we called 'The Cave' in the bowels of the downtown mall until finally the perfect place came up at just the right time. We have christened this location the 'Abbey' and have been here in the basement of the Kirk of St. James for a full year now and just held an Open House to celebrate.

The best part of growing a business is connecting with the wonderful entrepreneurial spirit. People like Michael Smith, the renowned chef, helped me by using my teas at his Inn at Bay Fortune and inspiring many Islanders to embrace local. As a result, there are many local companies which purchase my specialty teas. As much as possible I use PEI flowers, fruits and berries to enhance the flavours of my teas and to add that special touch that people enjoy so much.

                                                  Thank you Michael

Flowers from Red Roots Flower Farm have added a fun appeal to my ice cubes! People love the pretty floating cubes in the top of their iced tea. You must try this edible flower idea to add that special charm to your garden party!

Another very special part of owning and operating a small business is hiring student employees for the summer through government grant funding. Ting Ting, Chelsy and Willow are three of the most amazing young people ever. Both Ting Ting and Chelsy are graduates of the UPEI Business Administration program and were instrumental in practising their new found knowledge in my budding business. Ting Ting got me straightened out with record keeping and analysing costs. Chelsy had the creative talent and led the way into a production of colour. Gone with the black and white and black and red. Onward with splashes of colour for every tea package! Sales really picked up! My tea inventory increased. Both gals are successful business women today in London, Ontario and Calgary, Alberta. I miss you two lovely ladies!

Because of the new found potential, my talented daughter agreed to be my post-tea artist and my niece, a highly qualified graphic designer developed new designs.

   

Willow is my high school student who has been at the market tea bar every Saturday for 3 years and all last summer doing a million things for me. She keeps me on my toes with the latest fads and has the best relationship with our market clients. 

Willow has a great relationship with market visitors like Martin Rutte, author of Heaven on Earth

I have not worked single handedly for several years now but it is only the last two years that I can completely trust my tea ladies, Jen, Sandy and Shannon to collectively make executive decisions while I escape to grand-mothering in faraway lands. It was not them...it was me. I could not let go! I feel like I have graduated from the newbie businesswoman to a more knowledgeable, trusting and experienced one! This past January I completed 8 courses through the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada and can now put this interesting title after my name.

Katherine Burnett

Certified TAC TEA SOMMELIER® Professional

And so now my friends, what is there left to do? I plan to hold a few workshops in the fall. These will be an Introduction to Teas, Tea and Food Pairings and Tea Tastings. Each will be experiential as I love hearing comments and seeing the reactions of people in fellowship over tea. 

I certainly never thought my business would go in this direction. The Business Plan has had many revisions. Before too very long, I will retire. No, no, not from drinking tea; but to start drinking tea while savouring memories and leaving the dreams to others! 

Indeed, as I searched through my closet of memories, I found myself on a journey; a journey like no other! Thanks from the bottom of my heart for coming along.

 

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