Assistant vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia is a far cry from running a small business focused on organic tea. Howard James, the owner and operator of Tea Country, saw an opportunity to make the leap from corporate America to small business proprietor.
After an MBA project at Eastern University steered him in the direction of fine loose-leaf teas, his passion grew for the product. Although information technology is vastly different from brewing green tea, Howard’s love for his work in both fields has contributed to his success.
“Anything I do I have to have a love for,” Howard said. And while his love for IT work is not lost (he still does freelance work on the side) his early retirement from the field showed that his passions have begun to lie elsewhere. Howard said he finds comfort in his new venture. So, too, does his wife, Karen James, who also left her previous profession to start a business in holistic medicine. Holistically Yours, which is located above Tea Country in the same building, compliments the various health benefits of tea just as Howard and Karen’s paths toward their passions do. The tea business and the holistic medicine operation are located at 6722 Old York Road.
While Howard left a successful career in the IT field, Karen left the New Jersey public school system. With a doctorate in education, Karen said she felt compelled to “take her health into her own hands.” Although teaching was a passion of hers, it was important that she find alternatives to her conventional doctors who had repeatedly failed her in the past. Her doctor “simply wrote out a prescription and did not look at my notes and did not really care what I had to share,” Karen said.
It is easy to see why these two entrepreneurs have had such success with their new careers. Bright smiles and a gesture of openness extended to anyone who asks for help has created an atmosphere of acceptance that the community has gathered around. Those who come in search of alternatives to their conventional doctors leave with all natural medicines. Often times customers of Karen will seek an added remedy in tea. Chamomile, Serene and Lavender are just a few of the creams that are recommended for patients of Karen.
The connection between Karen’s holistic healing and Howard’s tea only goes so far. Much of the success Tea Country has seen comes from community outreach programs that Howard calls “tea services.” Various church groups and associations in the area have requested his services at their events. Some groups have had attendance of nearly 150 people. Additionally, in conjunction with Mt. Airy Learning Tree and Cheltenham township adult school, he teaches courses on tea basics.
While these community efforts have raised significant awareness about Tea Country, its the Gentlemen’s Tea Club that Howard hosts that he said he is truly excited about. Notable speakers have come to Tea Country to do presentations for the club. Most recently, health and wellness expert Glenn Ellis joined the group to discuss homeopathy and better health management. Philadelphia City Council candidate Lawrence Clark, who is also a member of Gentlemen’s Tea Club, talked about his experiences as a Six Sigma black belt.
“It’s a nice opportunity for men with the same interests and goals and lifestyles to share stories and discuss whatever they want to discuss,” Howard said. He admitted that building a foundation of male tea drinkers is a challenge but always tries to communicate the extraordinary health benefits of drinking tea. “I do a 15-minute presentation on tea to expose them to another aspect. That’s something they all want to know about: the health benefits of different types of tea from different regions,” Howard said.
Although growth has not been as rapid as he first expected, Howard said he does hope to expand his business and open some eyes about the benefits of tea. “The hardest part sometimes is getting people off of coffee. Once they realize how much better for you tea is, they keep coming back for more. It is still tough to compete with Starbucks,” Howard said.
Previously, Tea Country had a second location in the Avenue North shopping center at the corner of Broad and Cecil B. Moore. But with a floundering economy and little help from local politicians, Howard said Tea Country, along with various other stores in that corridor, didn’t stand a chance. “There wasn’t much happening in the way of support for Avenue North business corridor,” he continued. “They never put a marquee sign up, which was outrageous. The politicians who were at the groundbreaking, we never saw them again after they took their pictures at the groundbreaking. The nail in the coffin was that they never opened the anchor store.”
Even though he said he expected a “spike upwards” from the Temple location, Howard took this as a lesson for the future. “All of the things I was able to have other people take care of when I was in corporate America, now I have to do on my own,” he said. For Howard, expansion is still an option down the road. He said he continues to search for new tea drinkers and new venues to share his expertise.