Belfast Briefing: Business success was in the tea leaves

There are hopes Suki Tea will become next household favourite thanks to major deal

Oscar Woolley is a little more discerning than most when it comes to his choice of tea

Like a lot of people Oscar Woolley has a habit of popping the kettle on and making a cup of tea when he needs inspiration. But he is a little more discerning than most when it comes to his choice of tea – in fact Woolley is very specific about his favourite brew.

It has to be a high quality, loose tea and he is really only happy to drink from a portfolio of more than 45 blends and herbal infusions.

Lucky for Woolley then that he is a founder of the boutique Belfast based tea blender Suki Tea. The speciality business he started in 2005 with Anne Irwin has a fan base stretching from its home territory to Japan, Poland and even Kenya.

Now Woolley is hoping that Suki Tea will become the next household favourite thanks to its first major retail deal with a multiple. It has just won a contract to supply Belfast Brew tea to around 200 M&S food stores in the UK and Ireland.

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Important

Woolley believes the new deal could be an “immensely important development” for the business, which employs 20 people in Belfast.

“Annie and I first started selling our teas from a stand at a small farmer’s market in Belfast (St George’s), and then we added more markets and the odd festival, and we built our business seven days a week by sheer hard work. But even years and years ago, we always had an ambition to be in M&S – it was always a target for us.

“To be able to walk into an M&S store today in Belfast and see our Belfast Brew on the shelves is just amazing for us.”

The company has always had a strong focus on the service side of the business from its early days when it wooed local cafes and restaurants to stock its teas. Its now a firm favourite with leading hotels, delis, and gourmet cafes across Britain and Ireland.

Woolley says one of the reasons it has captured a sizeable share of such a competitive market is because of its sourcing ethics.

“Anne and I had travelled a lot independently before we started Suki Tea; we both share a sense of adventure . . . We have seen at first hand how good ethically sourced teas can really help communities in very poor countries like India and Tanzania.

“That’s why the accreditations we have achieved for our teas – such as our triple certified teas, which are Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified– are hugely important to us,” he adds.

Although the M&S contract is a major boost for Suki Tea, it is only one of a myriad of ambitions that Woolley and Irwin have for their company, not least expanding their growing online business.

But next on their list is their plan to get Northern Ireland's first tea plantation up and running in Portaferry. The company is using a £4,000 innovation voucher from Invest NI and is working with Greenmount College to put their plans into action.

What they would like to do in the North is create new roots for learning about the tea industry. “In the past, people would have been sent to tea plantations for six months to learn the business – that was the old school way of doing it. Sadly we don’t have that luxury today so what we want to do is bring the tea plantation to us, to create a learning environment. It’s never been done before in Northern Ireland but we like to create challenges.

Growing

“It’s my dream to be able to grow tea in Northern Ireland. It might not be a big commercial success but it will be an educational one. I am hopeful we that by 2019 we could produce a leaf that is cup-worthy,” Woolley says. In the meantime he is busy unpacking a collection of children’s tea cups that will take pride of place in Suki Tea’s refurbished head office.

“I had forgotten until my mum recently reminded me that when I was about four years of age, I started collecting childrens’ tea cups and, apparently, when I was six, I told my mum that I was going to make my fortune selling antique tea cups when I was older . . .”

His ambitions may have changed slightly but it appears his fortune was always going to be dictated by the leaves.