Hi Square Sellers, for today's interview I spoke with Erica Indira Swanson, Founder and CEO of Tea Bar in Portland. She talks about her four location business, her well-curated approach to interior and menu design, as well as her recent strategic strategies. This is the 10th and final interview for this specific series. I will be launching a new series shortly that focuses on the mechanics behind successful food and beverage business models.
Journey into Ownership.
I was born and raised in Portland by a single father and was able to travel a lot at an early age. I went to China for a few years to learn Mandarin. When I came back to the States, I noticed a gap in the market. In Portland, there were so many coffee shops and not that many tea options. I’m not a huge coffee drinker and I was exposed to so much amazing tea in China that combined with their work ethic, absolutely inspired me. I opened my first location in December of 2014. I started with Square from day one. I now have 4 locations throughout Portland. It’s a completely woman-owned and operated business.
Interior Design + Photo Design
I have a Scandinavian background and I believe in a less is more approach. All my spaces are modern and very minimal. I wanted to create something open and airy that would highlight the product as well as be an approachable space to all. It was also a completely different look and feel than what was in the market.
I always prioritize south-facing spaces. All but one of my shops has this orientation and having tons of natural light is so important. It’s the perfect foundation for great customer-driven photography which has really helped organically drive our success.
Social Media + Marketing
We, like most small businesses, have no real budget for marketing. That being said, we’ve embedded into our process prioritizing high quality photos of our products and spaces. I’m so fortunate to work with Candace Molatore, a local Portland-based photographer for all our images. She’s part of our team and we have scheduled shoots every week built into our operations. We know ahead which shots we’ll do each week and so we’ll be sure to have all the ingredients we need, and the props. We always take them in our spaces since they were designed to capture images with all the amazing natural light.
We’re about to launch a new drink and we’re shooting that this week. We’ve sourced amazing guava from Hawaii and we’re introducing a guava matcha latte. Super excited to capture it so we can promote on our social platforms as well as our e-mail newsletter.
I wanted our menu to be a reflection of our space and vice versa. It’s streamlined and intentional and as simple as possible. I needed to be sure it was super approachable. Many tea houses at the time would offer a massive booklet of teas. I always found this confusing and a daunting task to figure out what to order. We have a favorite section, our bubble teas and apart from that customers can make their own creations but it’s not laid out in a way that takes up too much of the menu presentation. Each drink is always made fresh to order. All our infusions and sub recipes are made in house. Customers can change sweetness levels and customize.
I wanted to build a business that didn’t rely on me in terms of day to day operations. I built systems so it could scale smoothly and I could replicate the model to other locations. Those systems support growth but they support the team as well. When you have a super clear recipe guide, a troubleshooting guide for electronics and really well-organized opening and closing procedure materials, that takes a big burden off the onsite teams. I did this from the outset and it’s been crucial to our success.
We kept our Pearl location open the entire time during Covid-19 and just took it day by day. We needed to implement safety for our team. We got social distancing stickers very quickly. We had a local fabricator make us plexiglass shields for our POS to protect our staff. It’s all contactless payment and we’re not accepting cash to limit touch-points. We’re using the white reader and we just direct people to put their card in. Our team gently asks customers if they would like to tip and swivels the stand around. We hit the button so there’s no contact.
I use a Google survey each day for my staff. They answer safety questions. We also do temperature checks each shift before members start. Everyone is wearing masks and gloves.
I schedule four day work weeks and I ensure everyone has three days off in a row so they get adequate rest.
We’ve brought in a lot of new products to sell online. We already had a beer and wine license at the Pearl location for our tea mimosas so that has allowed us to start selling and curating some amazing natural wines. We also have our 64 oz milk teas. We sell them online and wholesale to some select, local grocery stores like New Seasons. We’ll likely need a co-packer at some point to expand the wholesale product volume effectively and keep it cost efficient for both us and the customer.
We’re selling boba kits and we’ve been making video tutorials for Instagram so we’ll lean into that more. It’s important to provide content and resources that support our offering and approach. The response has been really positive. I’m developing a few other products now that will be introduced soon so excited to get those launched soon. They will be sold both online and in-store.
This crisis has really brought our crew together. It’s required so much support of each other and so much listening. I’ve been deeply impressed by the resilience of my team. This time has required so much positivity. I’m just so grateful.
Thank you Erica! Great to chat.