Made in Georgia products: Tea-drinking habit led to a new business

One of Thistle & Sprig’s most popular blends is Four Sisters, a combination of chamomile, lavender, peppermint and lemongrass. The company also sells accessories, such as this tea infuser. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig
One of Thistle & Sprig’s most popular blends is Four Sisters, a combination of chamomile, lavender, peppermint and lemongrass. The company also sells accessories, such as this tea infuser. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig

Credit: Kristen McSorley

Credit: Kristen McSorley

Susannah Lee spent five years as a tea-drinking office worker who found herself having a hard time finding good quality tea. Deciding that, if she saw this gap in the market, others might, too, she launched Thistle & Sprig Tea Co in September, 2017.

Lee noted that, after water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, but it’s still a growing market in the U.S. “I think it’s a good thing that there are a growing number of tea companies in the Atlanta area,” she said. “It indicates there are a lot of people getting into tea, and there’s lots of potential here.”

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A longtime tea drinker, Susannah Lee founded Thistle & Sprig to share her blends of loose-leaf teas. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig
A longtime tea drinker, Susannah Lee founded Thistle & Sprig to share her blends of loose-leaf teas. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Lee knew she wanted to offer only loose-leaf teas. “For some customers, it’s a leap to go from bagged tea to loose-leaf tea,” she said, “but the flavor is so much better, the tea stays fresh longer, and, because there’s not the waste of the tea bags, it’s more eco-friendly.”

She sources her tea directly from growers in Taiwan, Japan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. “We do this to support small farms and farm cooperatives,” Lee said. “I wanted to source tea that’s made without harm. Many tea regions still face corporatized colonization, and there are worker welfare issues in the tea industry.”

Lee works out of a certified facility in Atlanta’s Chosewood Park neighborhood, and packages her teas in a recyclable metal tin. She spends from 20 to 40 hours a week there, among the shelves of raw ingredients and rows of packaged tea.

Thistle & Sprig’s Fireside blend is a combination of black tea, hibiscus, clove, orange peel and orange extract. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig
Thistle & Sprig’s Fireside blend is a combination of black tea, hibiscus, clove, orange peel and orange extract. Courtesy of Thistle & Sprig

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

When Lee began her business, she thought her primary market would be coffee shops and restaurants. It turned out that many were reluctant to brew loose-leaf tea. In 2018, she became a vendor at Grant Park Farmers Market. “It was a real confidence booster and helped me continue down this path,” she said. “I love interacting with customers directly, hearing what they like, what they’re looking for.”

Lee added other markets over time, but, being the only employee, she has scaled back, and now is selling every other week at the Sunday morning Grant Park market.

She started with five tea blends, and continues to expand the line. Lee enjoys developing blends that are flavorful and delicious, even without a sweetener, which is how she enjoys her tea.

“I want each blend to have a distinct concept, flavorwise,” she said. “Then, it’s coming up with the name and the packaging. That’s the most fun part of what I do.”

Her top sellers are Georgia Grey, a spin on classic Earl Grey tea — and winner of the beverage category in the 2020 University of Georgia Flavor of Georgia competition — and Four Sisters, a combination of chamomile, lavender, peppermint and lemongrass, which she calls the four “garden sisters,” but which represents Lee and her three sisters, as well.

Typically, Lee sells about 20 blends, and she’s thoughtful about when to retire a blend and when to add more. “I didn’t have a rooibos, a caffeine-free tea that comes from South Africa, and people ask for it,” she said. “So, I added that to my line.”

Lee said the start of the pandemic was a scary time, but focusing on selling directly to her customers — whether at a farmers market or online — showed her how much support she had in the Atlanta community. In five years, she can see Thistle & Sprig being primarily an online business.

Her advice for others considering starting a business is to have a plan, but also to be flexible, to adapt when you see what works and what doesn’t. “Follow your successes, and go down that path,” she said.

Lee said she appreciates the support she’s received. She has partnered with FitKitBrands, now Wellspring, whose employee wellness packages include her teas. And, she appreciates the Community Farmers Markets organization, for the role they’ve played in helping many small Atlanta businesses grow.

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