Thursday, August 23, 2018

Interview: Brandon Friedman of Rakkasan Tea Company

Brandon Friedman (photo courtesy of Rakkasan Tea Company)

I'm pleased to present an interview with Brandon Friedman, co-founder of Rakkasan Tea Company, a vendor trying to make a difference in the industry. Rakkasan works with small farmers in post-conflict tea-growing areas such as Vietnam, Laos, and Rwanda to help the economy of the area and bring their teas to US customers. Learn more about their mission, why this goal is so important to the founders, the challenges they face as a new tea company, and more, below.

Why did you decide to start a tea company?
I got the idea in October 2016. I also co-own a PR and communications firm and my business partner and I were feeling particularly disenchanted with it. So we started kicking around ideas for a product to sell. We both loved drinking tea, so we started pulling on that thread. We knew we couldn’t just start a generic tea company importing from China or India, so we looked at needs in the industry. Very early on, we saw there was a lot of great loose-leaf tea not making it to U.S. consumers. And what we found was that a lot of it was grown in emerging markets whose economies had taken hits due to conflict.
So we saw an opportunity to accomplish two goals: First, we could promote peace and development in post-conflict countries by helping small farmers there gain access to the U.S. market. And second, we could bring U.S. tea drinkers artisan tea they’d never experienced before. Specialty tea from places like Rwanda, Nepal, Vietnam and Laos.

How does your military background influence the company?
My military background (and that of Terrence “TK” Kamauf, my Rakkasan Tea co-owner) is woven into the company. We’re not a company that caters to a military audience—we want everyone to enjoy our tea. But our military experiences have shaped the company in a number of ways. I never drank hot tea before I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while living there, we never conducted any business with anyone unless it was over cups of tea. And that was my introduction—not British-style tea time, but in between combat missions with armed Iraqi police or local leaders. Drinking tea was how we all bonded. And in that sense, I learned that tea was much more of a social drink than, say, coffee—which is very solitary. So for our brand, we’ve tried to stay true to our origin in conflict. We don’t have flowers or orange peels on our packaging. We have steel canisters with no-frills labeling. It reflects the austere environment in which we learned to drink tea—and it allows the tea to speak for itself.
But most importantly, combat gave me an appreciation for the toll war takes on communities. And that’s why we felt the need to into some of these places and give back. Not only by helping them rebuild their economies through commerce, but also by dispelling negative American views of places like Rwanda or Vietnam—places that evoke very specific images for many Americans. Tea can build bridges on a person-to-person level and it can do the same for countries through trade.

On your website it says you look for the tea ‘hidden gems’. Can you explain to us how you select the tea that you sell, and why you choose the specific countries you sell from?
We’ll look at tea grown in any post-conflict country. Within those countries, we do have criteria: We look for tea grown organically (whether or not it’s certified), tea produced using sustainable practices and tea estates that take care of their workers. From there, we taste everything they offer and we pick the selections we think Americans will really fall in love with.
In Sri Lanka, for example—which emerged in the last decade from a 30-year-long civil war—we buy from a small estate that does revenue sharing with its employees. Not profit sharing, but actual revenue sharing. They hand roll the tea and it’s some of the best I’ve ever had.
In Vietnam, we buy from farmers in the north who harvest from wild tea trees that are 300 – 400 years old. They actually have to climb ladders to pluck the leaves. Not only is the tea superior, but it makes for a great story as well.

I see you have an advisory board with a couple of well-known tea folks. What does the advisory board do for Rakkasan?
We wouldn’t exist without our advisory board. On the tea side, Kyle Stewart and Jeni Dodd have offered mentorship and advice from the very beginning. It’s really been a privilege to learn from those two. Aside from that, Jeni introduces us to the best tea in Nepal and she helps us import it directly from the farmers she knows.

Photo courtesy of Rakkasan Tea Company

What are some of the challenges as a new company in the tea industry?
Our biggest challenge as a new company right now is letting people know we exist. We have a really great return customer rate, so we know tea drinkers who try our tea like it. So we have to do more to get our story out there.
It’s also been a steep learning curve in a number of other ways—specifically supply lines. A couple of times we’ve run out of certain selections due to poor planning (on our part), drought and small farmers who simply can’t keep up with demand. It’s been a great learning experience though.

When did you first discover your love for tea?
In the Army, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. See above.

Do you have any personal tea rituals?
I rarely drink tea out of a coffee mug. TK and I still use the little tea glasses you see in Middle Eastern tea shops. Because that’s what we used when we lived there.

How would you like to see the company grow in the coming months?
We’re going to start offering tea grown in Colombia this fall. It’ll be our sixth country. And as we sell more, we plan to hire more staff—specifically more veterans. Right now, our tea is available in five stores—three in the Dallas area. And we want to expand that. At our office, we also eventually want to add a tea room—so when folks stop by, we’re not sitting on metal chairs next to boxes of inventory.
I’ve always rooted for the underdog and I want Rakkasan Tea to be the company that goes after the best tea that many in the industry often overlook—tea from places that haven’t had a lot of opportunity to show Americans what they’re capable of producing.
Brandon, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview! Please keep an eye out for a review or two of Rakkasan teas, as I have a few I need to write about. For more information on the company and to view the teas they offer, please visit their website.

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