Going into 2020, life and business were good for Jenny Tse, founder of Sipping Streams Tea Company in Fairbanks Alaska. She had turned her passion for tea, health and wellness into a tea store, restaurant, factory and tea farm. After a difficult divorce, she had remarried and her husband had recently quit his government job to work in the business full-time.
Then the pandemic hit, and the first sign of trouble was a big one: a $15,000 order that was ready to be shipped was canceled. But Tse didn’t panic. She had already been through so many setbacks that this was just another one to take in stride. “I’ll find some other way to sell that tea,” she resolved.
She did, and her business continues to grow. But supply chain woes have left her business in urgent need of funds to purchase custom printed tea canisters to save time and money, as well as to increase revenues. Getting turned down multiple times for bank loans left her discouraged. Serendipity led her to the Nav Small Business Grant, where she secured crucial funds to take her business to the next level.
Her passion and perseverance, along with her clear vision of the next steps she needs to continue to grow her business, inspired Nav to award Sipping Streams Tea Company the Nav $10,000 Small Business Grant for the fourth quarter of 2021.
Starting from Passion
Tse’s business idea began percolating long before she officially launched. Working at a physical therapy clinic many years ago, she found tea to be a conversation starter and loved hearing about her clients’ and coworkers’ traditions around the beverage. Intrigued, she started learning more. She found it even opened up conversations with her parents, who had been reluctant to talk about their childhoods in China until Tse started visiting tea farms there.
“Not only is tea the most-consumed beverage in the world,” she says, “but it is also intercultural and intergenerational. It ties all people together and it heals us from the inside out.”
Tse was pursuing a career as a high school teacher when she started Sipping Streams in 2007, putting every penny from her paychecks after bills were paid into the business. When she was laid off, her plans went into high gear.
She gave talks about tea and began creating her own custom blends. She became a certified tea specialist with the Specialty Tea Institute, going on to win top recognition for her blends at the North American Tea Championships. Over time she was able to turn her passion into a business.
Tse has not used a lot of financing in her business. She says she’s tried several times to get bank loans but despite being profitable, she was turned down. “They’ve told me I need collateral other than the business, but since I don’t own a home or brand new car, I don’t qualify,” she explains.
She raised $40,000 from family and friends as loans to start her first tea house location.
The blessing in disguise was CARES Act funding, which allowed her to secure funds from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.
Three years into her business, and just after she started paying herself a salary, she faced a trifecta of setbacks, both personal and professional. No one would have blamed her if she threw in the towel.
Tse was getting divorced; she discovered that her CPA wasn’t paying businesses taxes on time, resulting in expensive penalties from the IRS; and then she learned an employee had embezzled several thousand dollars from the business, destroying the books in the process. It was an almost impossibly difficult time.
“I lost all my working capital,” she says. Yet she had to find a way to keep paying her employees, even though she didn’t have much product to sell because capital had dried up.
Still, she refused to give up. She didn’t want to disappoint her employees, and she didn’t want to disappoint her customers. She had seen how tea had transformed others’ lives and she “wanted other people to experience the same positive impact my family felt from the community and culture of tea.”
Then the pandemic hit. After the $15,000 order was canceled, a slew of other cancellations followed. She doubled down and researched ways to sell her tea online. She credits her mastermind, The Product Boss, for helping her hone in on next steps for growth. She also found the Fairbanks Economic Development Corporation to be helpful, and most of all, she credits her local community for their support.
She and her husband continue to grow the business, and recently launched a worldwide first: a geothermal tea farm to grow and source their own tea.
Like so many small businesses, Sipping Streams Tea Company has been impacted by supply chain disruptions and has had difficulty finding long-term employees. Being located in Alaska adds even greater hurdles when it comes to getting timely deliveries. She installed machinery to make pyramid tea bags, which saves valuable time.
Her immediate challenge, though, and the one she plans to solve with funds from the Nav $10,000 Small Business Grant, is the need for custom-printed canisters. Her business loses sales when she can’t offer tea in canisters, but her current process of sourcing and labeling individual stock canisters is labor intensive and not cost-effective, especially with current supply chain challenges.
“Our best seller is our teas in canisters,” she explains. Without a reliable source of canisters, sales slow and that affects cash flow, creating a vicious cycle she’s anxious to put to an end so she can focus more on growth.
Ultimately her goal is to continue to grow the business she loves, both in her local community and online. Tse thrives on stories she hears from her customers who have benefited from the health and wellness benefits of her teas. And the tea house brings her a special kind of joy. “We love family and friends meeting at our tea house, having tea parties, catering their weddings, hosting their baby showers,” she shares. “I see memories being made.”
With $10,000 from the Nav Small Business Grant, Tse can continue to grow her business and serve the community she loves.
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This article was originally written on March 8, 2022.
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