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Won’t You Be My Neighbour?

by Theresa Lemieux

Tea really is the ideal product for the quintessential brick-and mortar, family-owned, Main Street shop. Colourful teapots, cups and cozies; soothingly uniform shelves, all lined with tall tins bearing enticing, exotic names. Not to mention the people at the counter teeming with a deep love and knowledge of tea. We tea-drinkers all know our neighbourhood tea-mongers, often developing a cozy relationship based as much on our mutual tastes as the locale. A visit to the tea shop for a drink or a re-stocking of the tea cupboard is often a cherished part of our routine. Or it was, until the pandemic froze the world in place.

The “Shop Local” trend had been steadily growing since before the shockwave of March 2020. But being swiftly forced into lockdown made it seem more prevalent and perhaps more profound. Suddenly, everything took on a magnified significance. We shored up in our homes and neighbourhoods, supporting local merchants and restaurants with extra appreciation. But then the cracks started to show.

Even as Amazon’s business was booming, people were reading the news of restaurants and small businesses collapsing under the weight on ongoing closures. Some tea shops benefitted from a backlash against that big-box dominance, and others had to close for good. It soon became clear: if our neighbourhoods were to remain ours, tea shops intact, it would be up to us.

Tea is an easy product to switch to online-only ordering: lightweight, often prepackaged, shelf-stable. But were tea shops ready for the switch? And if they were, would their clients support them online? How important would “shop local” turn out to be when every order was a click away? As it turns out, it depends on the vendor and their relationship with their clientele.

Sandy Nicholson of Lady Baker’s Tea in PEI confirms just how essential internet orders were for the survival of that cherished local brand.

Sandy Nicholson, Operations Manager, Lady Baker's Tea

“We were grateful that we already had an online presence when everything shut down. All our wholesale orders stopped immediately from all our local tea and coffee shops, so we quickly moved to curbside pickup. Our local customers were still able to get the tea that they loved. That really kept us going.”

Tea companies like Lady Baker’s Tea that already had a large online presence saw strong growth in internet sales. The loss of the farmer’s market where they usually sell their tea had an impact, but not a devastating one. Other companies were able to keep some locations open, even if others had to close.

Camellia Sinensis in Montreal remained open but, much to the shock of many clients, decided to permanently close the tea service rooms of their Emery Street location after 23 years. Closing the teahouse certainly marked the end of an era. Their clientele had grown over the years; from a small teahouse with its famous silky, relaxed ambiance into a tea community hub, then again into the renowned specialty tea shops.


Fortunately, this closure is making way for a new project: next year the two addresses of the Emery St. location will be completely reshaped and blended into an exciting project that involves another level of focus on tasting, discovery, and education. Co-owner Kevin Gascoyne remained elusive about the exact details but said it was time for something new.

“It seems dramatic to close such a popular venue, but we have always strongly believed that you have to continually evolve, change keeps it fresh. The timing seemed right. And we have a history of shaking things up."

The company also saw on a large increase in web sales through their newly revamped website, shifting many of their staff over to that department. Their shops remained open throughout the pandemic, beacons of hope and normalcy for their clientele.

“While most retail was pounded by very stormy seas, having a grocery licence allowed us to remain open to both sell tea and serve tea to take out. So, we became a destination for people’s afternoon walk while everybody was stuck at home during lock-down. Despite an overall drop in sales during the pandemic, remaining open certainly increased brand loyalty. We had quite a few clients tell us ‘We are so glad you stayed open, it meant so much to us’,” Kevin reflects.

“I think we all developed a deeper appreciation of tea’s role as a calming drink during stressful times. Tea has always been there in times of crisis.”

Grant Kuebler, Managing Director of Murchie’s Tea & Coffee, also reports that during the lockdowns in British Columbia, online sales were very favourable for the Vancouver-based company.

Image copyright: Don Erhardt Photography

“Our online business has done very well. Sky-rocketed, actually. We could see it right at the beginning – the tea orders were very large. People were thinking they needed to stock up.”

Murchie’s also experienced that same generous outpouring of sympathy from their clientele when the lockdown first happened.

“There was certainly a strong feeling of wanting to support us. Once stores had to be closed, we had phone calls to our head office just making sure that we were still around. People were quite concerned that we were going to be okay,” Kuebler says.

If shopping online from local vendors was important during the lockdown, so was returning to stores as soon as possible. According to Kuebler, Murchie’s retail sales have bounced back to better numbers than before the lockdown, an affirmation of both brand loyalty and in-person shopping. People are eager to re-connect with shop owners who are often friends, neighbours, perhaps even donors to local sports teams; in general, part of the tapestry of everyday life. What’s more, people seem to like shopping for tea in person.

Angela Macdonald, Executive Director of the Bloor West Business Improvement Association and aspiring tea sommelier, explains that in-person shopping created the basis of those relationships that held strong during store closures. She has heard from retailers and residents who are delighted to see the revival of street shopping.

“Brick-and-mortar stores offer somethings

that online doesn't: the service,

the accountability, the care, the connection.

Those things don't exist the same way online.”

And if we wanted to show our loyalty to our neighbourhood stores, well, it seems we were quite eager. According to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), 45 per cent of consumers sought to buy local products in the past year and 97 percent said they bought a product to just to support the local economy.

“I think that the pandemic really made people realize how much we are connected to our local surroundings because many of us were based from home,” she explains. “People care about their communities and were starting to see that some of their favourite places just weren't coming back. There was a bit of a momentum that took place. And the media helped us to understand the plight of our local businesses.”

Of course, that situation differed greatly from province to province, and at different times. The Maritime provinces were often in a very different situation than Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces.

“We've been really lucky on PEI because there have only been a few short times that we've been really fully locked down, so our restaurants and coffee shops for the most part have been able to operate,” Nicholson says.

Wherever we were in the country when things were at their most restrictive, it seems Canadians were drinking more tea. Not only drinking more tea, but better tea. According to Kuebler, the old favourites held steady, like Earl Grey, the breakfast blends, and Murchie’s Afternoon Tea, but people then began to really splurge.

“We were really surprised at the quality of teas people were buying. We don’t usually sell that many teas that are about $100 a pound; suddenly we were selling a lot of the tippy Assams and Darjeelings. And happily, some of that has held on.”

Sandy Nicholson credits a lot of the sales of the finer tea to the educational posts on Lady Baker’s Tea blog.

“Katherine, who is our resident tea sommelier, wrote informational blog posts throughout the pandemic. It was important to keep increasing tea knowledge, especially as people had more time to learn about it. We still get customers who comment on what they've read. They tell us that wanted to try this tea or that tea because they know more about it now.”

It was no different for Camellia Sinensis, Kevin recounts. Even though they are already a specialty tea shop, they were able to offer extra fine, rare teas that they had always wanted to carry.

“Customers had more time and money to shop online, more time to drink tea and more time to explore teas they had always wanted to try,” according to Kevin. “Our teas flirt that line between daily essentials and special treats.”

The pandemic revealed the Shop Local trend for what it really was: a story of human connection, in good times and bad.

Angela Macdonald explains it perfectly: “We lost many things in the pandemic. We lost the ability to hop on a plane and go visit with family, we lost the freedom to live as we want, we lost people we love.” But we have also gained a deeper awareness of what matters.

She continues: “Local businesses were highlighted because there was an increased awareness: who is in your neighbourhood? Who are those local businesses behind that front door? We found a stronger connection with our local communities.” We’ve gained a deeper appreciation for that cup of tea, for those we share it with, and those provide it to us every day.


Written by Theresa Lemieux

Certified TAC Tea Sommelier Professional

Originally review for the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada in their autumn issue of Sip: 

Reprinted with permission of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada for Lady Baker's Tea.


1 comment

cat maule

This is a really lovely piece of writing, thank you for re-printing it on the blog here. Reading it actually feels like everything that sharing a cup of tea is: honest, comforting, intimate and uplifting.

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