A Brooklyn couple is creating an authentic and accessible escape for tea lovers across the city.
Alfonso Wright and Jamila McGill fell in love over tea. Wright, a tea enthusiast, was fully immersed in the world of tea from the time that he was a child, and when he met McGill, he shared his love for the drink with her.
“We started dating and he brought me into the tea world. I was a sweet iced tea girl from Atlanta Georgia, I didn’t know anything about the lovely oolongs and different types of teas,” recalled McGill. “It was his way of courting me, instead of bar hopping we went tea hopping.”
“I come from a Caribbean household, and in that household, everyone has a job. My job has been serving my mom tea since I was three years old,” said Wright. “In my house, it was tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea for a sprained ankle — tea is always the answer. I wanted to bring that experience to everyone else.”
In 2017, Wright and McGill launched Brooklyn Tea as an online business, bagging up orders at their home and creating their own tea mixes. In 2018, the two opened Brooklyn Tea’s first brick and mortar location on Nostrand Avenue in Bed-Stuy, offering over 100 different teas for sale that can be brewed in-store, hot or iced, or brought home.
The store opened three days before Christmas, and despite one flood that took place on Christmas Day that same opening week, the Brooklyn community was really receptive to the idea of a new tea room. As a part of their business, McGill and Wright try to educate their customers about tea, particularly for those who don’t know where to start.
“We offer a variety [of tea]. A lot of our teas are blended, some taste like juice, some taste like coffee. We start you where you’re comfortable. We ask what do you like, we can start you there and help you branch out,” said Wright.
“We try to educate around the tea experience. Oftentimes people think they hate all teas when they only have had two, and it’s oversteeped and the leaves are burnt three minutes ago and has bitter taste on your tongue. And when it’s like that, we agree, you aren’t enjoying tea right now,” said McGill. “We’re talking about time, temperature and measurement so you can have a higher quality experience and can appreciate what the leaf has to offer.”
The tea room was hit in Brooklyn, and the establishment hosted many open mic nights, artist installations and more in an effort to make the business into a local staple. However, everything changed in an instant in March 2020 as a result of COVID-19 — McGill and Wright were running the store mostly by themselves as foot traffic came to a halt. They were able to keep some business going through Grubhub, which Brooklyn Tea wasn’t on pre-pandemic, but the store still suffered.
“We were able to keep our staff, we just cut down their hours tremendously. We had to cut store hours,” said McGill.
Tea as a whole was also slammed by the pandemic, affecting the amount of inventory that was even available for Brooklyn Tea to sell to their customers.
“It was hit pretty hard. Because it was a health pandemic, people were drinking healthier things at a higher rate. At the same time, a lot of these are international teas and herbs, the ports were full as well because of lack of staff,” said Wright.
“A lot of tea comes from Asia. Getting that to come over, you can imagine how difficult it was,” said McGill. “We had to juggle customer expectations with the reality of what was happening.”
As a result of the store business taking a dive, Wright and McGill put their focus into revitalizing Brooklyn Tea’s online footprint and moved sales to the website. They created an immunity box, which contained herbs and teas that are often used to boost your immune system. With their online sales, the store expanded from selling to just the hyperlocal New York area to shipping to all 50 states.
Wright and McGill credit a lot of the online success from being engaged with their audience and customers on social media.
“We used Facebook and Instagram to make silly informative videos to keep our online community engaged. That was the first spark of, okay we can survive through online means,” said Wright.
“In some ways, it was a dream come true. We always envisioned ourselves as being a household name and here we were going from our online business consisting of his mom and my mom’s best friend to now somebody from Utah is ordering three tins,” said McGill. “We went from hyperlocal new york area to now we ship to all 50 states.”
However, despite the success in online sales, it also had its challenges — due to the supply chain issues, Brooklyn Tea had cut down on the amount of inventory that was available. Despite this, McGill and Wright found encouragement from their customers to keep going.
“There’s a cut video of all the boxes we made and Jamila is in the middle of them peeking through,” said Wright. “We tried to keep it fun and keep everyone engaged with us.”
“We would get these emails from people saying, ‘We’ don’t care when we get it, keep going!’ It was very motivating,” said McGill. “We pride ourselves on supreme customer service so everything felt hard. We wanted to make sure people still believed in us, so when we got those kinds of messages it was very encouraging.”
It was only in the past couple of months that Brooklyn Tea’s storefront started to pick up some foot traffic. However, if cases continue to decline, McGill and Wright are looking forward to hosting more people in-store.
“When the pandemic was in full force, we understood that we shouldn’t have a lot of foot traffic. It was unsafe,” said Wright. “As people have trickled in, we’ve had COVID protocols to keep people safe and are following guidelines as much as we could. As numbers get lower, we’re now inviting more people to come back and spend time.”
For the future of Brooklyn Tea, the shop just opened a new storefront in McGill’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia last spring and Wright and McGill are working to open up another store in Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Heights in the near future. In addition to giving entrepreneurs a chance to step into the tea world, Brooklyn Tea is looking at franchising opportunities to expand further.
“We do want to be a household name someday and maybe go from a small business to a medium business, so this is an avenue we are going to take to do that,” said Wright. “Between our online business and our brick and mortar physical presence, we’re really trying to boost both at the same time.”
Brooklyn Tea is located at 524 Nostrand Avenue and is open daily from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. To learn more about Brooklyn Tea, visit brooklyntea.com.