Judy and Doug Van Berkel’s store, Diversi-Tea, offers 170 flavors of loose-leaf teas, plus specialty oils and vinegars. “When we did our business plan, we saw the teas would not be enough on their own,” said Judy, “so we added the olive oils and balsamic vinegars.” That’s worked well, since teas sell a little better in winter, while the oils and vinegars move more in summer.
“Tea is my love,” Judy confessed. “My grandmother taught me how it warms and soothes.”
Unusual route to retail niche
Doug, a fulltime firefighter/paramedic, and Judy, a self-employed portrait photographer, wanted to transition to an encore business before retirement. A change of travel plans led them to attend the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in 2014. “We thought we’d go to the Boot Camp, then go sightseeing,” Judy recalled. “But it was 120 degrees out, so instead we decided to take more classes.” That immersion motivated them to plan a retail teashop. But was the idea achievable?
From tea boot camp to business planning course
Doug saw an ad for the Entrepreneurial Training Program (ETP) offered by the Small Business Development Center of Stevens Point at the Wausau Business Incubator. The couple quickly signed up. Although they had some business training from the Professional Photographers of America, Judy said, “We knew there was a lot we didn’t know.” The ETP course helps entrepreneurs learn how to start and run a business through instruction, guest speakers, and coaching. Soon Judy and Doug were writing a business plan.
Determining the feasibility of their business idea was the toughest challenge. SBDC consultant Vicky Lobermeier provided demographic information for several cities in their target area. A tea industry consultant they met at the World Tea Expo steered the couple toward revitalized downtowns. “We took a measured approach,” Judy said, estimating costs for build-out, rent, etc. as well as assessing each possible location’s neighborhood retail mix and car/pedestrian traffic flow. Downtown Stevens Point got the nod.
Good business plan quickly led to loan
The Van Berkels financed their startup with personal assets and a loan from a community bank. Judy said, “We went in armed with our business plan. They were very surprised. We were told, ‘You don’t see people bring in a complete business plan anymore. They just come in and ask for money,’ Our detailed business plan is what helped us get the loan.”
Diversi-Tea opened in 2015 in a restored blacksmith shop–livery stable that had later sold auto parts. The building’s exposed brick adds historic charm.
In 2017, the Van Berkels decided to again see an SBDC consultant, to check their progress and plan for growth. Doug recalled, “We realized we were working too much in the business, not enough on the business.” Melissa Meschke had become Director for the SBDC at UW-Stevens Point, and began working with the Van Berkels. “Judy and Doug have complementary skills, which they’ve developed well,” she said.
Next up: marketing
Melissa helped the Van Berkels focus on marketing. They attended the annual Digital and Social Media Conference and received help from UW-Stevens Point students to update their website. Melissa also worked with them to gain more insight from their financial statements.
As the 2018 holiday season approaches, Judy and Doug are co-promoting with neighbor retailers for Small Business Saturday. They support community events and causes to build awareness. Melissa acknowledged that marketing in a niche market like Diversi-Tea’s can be a challenge. “They’ve done a great job expanding their product offerings to appeal to a larger audience,” she said.