Almost 20 years ago, Brandi Shelton was in London studying fashion design and spending her time in tea shops.
“I loved the feeling I got, holding that cup of tea, getting away from the world for a minute,” she said.
Moving to Atlanta, she took on tea blending as a hobby. “I loved the process. Adding a little of this, mixing in that.”
Just Add Honey was born as the hobby grew into a business, when she sold her blends, first to the Beehive co-op, then at art shows and neighborhood festivals.
She came up with the name, she explained, starting with her mom Jean’s first initial. The “J” turned into ‘just’ and, as for the rest, she said with a laugh, “‘Just add honey’ sounds better than ‘just add sugar.’”
Soon, she had a basement full of tins and jars of tea that turned into a garage full of tea when she married Jermail Shelton in 2008. “He said, ‘You should take it up a notch,’ and I got a commercial kitchen and a sales rep, and starting selling at trade shows and to shops,” she said. “I never thought I wanted a retail space.”
That changed in 2014, when the city of Atlanta offered grants for pop-up shops along Auburn Avenue and the new streetcar line. Just Add Honey received a grant, and Shelton enjoyed the pop-up experience so much that it turned into a permanent retail space at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in February, 2016.
“That’s all because of the reaction of our clients,” Shelton said. “As a business owner, you may assume what you’re doing is enough. We were selling our teas and brewing cups of tea to go. But, our customers were like, ‘No, we want to sit down and have a cup of tea, instead of grabbing a cup and heading out the door.’”
So, blending and brewing morphed into providing space for customers to enjoy what they purchased. Watching what happened while those customers were drinking their tea inspired the company’s tag line, “Connecting unlikely circles over a cup of tea.”
“We’d have real estate agents sitting next to a homeless guy, chatting over a cup of tea and a muffin,” she said. “There’d be conversations between Georgia State students and a 90-year-old woman who’d lived on Auburn Avenue since she was a little girl. Those relationships were very special, and it was something we got excited about. Retail isn’t just transactional. It’s about relationships as well.”
Now, there’s enough space for tea parties, showers and meetings, as well as monthly tea-blending classes.
In her classes, Shelton doesn’t give away the precise proportions for her tea blends, like Earl Grey Cream, with the black tea that’s scented with oil of bergamot mixed with vanilla bean and cornflower petals; or her Chocolate Mint Rooibos, featuring rooibos tea mixed with peppermint, cocoa beans, dried apple, chocolate flakes and vanilla bean. Instead, she explains where tea is grown, how it is harvested, why she prefers herbal teas to chemically decaffeinated teas, and how students can decide what ingredients go together to make their perfect blend.
At her February class, Saddi Thompson and Monique Childress worked on two different blends, to satisfy one’s passion for black teas with the other’s love of herbal teas. “We had our first date at Just Add Honey,” Thompson explained, and they enjoy coming back for classes and events. Erika Gay was pampering herself with the chance to exercise her artisanal muscles by creating a personalized blend.
Base recipes are provided, and then students are set loose to stir together whatever fits their mood. Each goes home with two small jars of their personal blend (or blends) and instructions for the proper temperature and steeping time for each variety of tea. All the ingredients used in the tea blends are sold in the shop, so, if students love their personalized blend, they can purchase the ingredients to make more.
Shelton’s future plans for the business include becoming a tea broker, and developing “leaf to cup” tours that will take tea connoisseurs to the places where tea is grown, including stateside tours to Charleston Tea Plantation. She’s already started her research, visiting India and Morocco in 2018, and is making plans for visits to Kenya, Sri Lanka and China.
She’s also enjoying the chance to use her shops as a “testing lab,” where she can get real-time customer feedback on new blends.
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