A Tea Business Steeped in Sustainability Brings Jobs to Taos
Dana Blair never imagined she’d be building a business on tea. The founder of tea.o.graphy in Taos, the company has grown exponentially each year since she quietly launched it in 2014.
“My whole journey through tea started with coffee, which I had to quit drinking due to health reasons,” Dana explains.
She was living in Georgia at the time, where she experimented with blends that had bold, coffee-like appeal. Her creation, Café sans Café, is a staple within teo.o.graphy’s current offerings. Blended with roasted chicory root, malty Assam black tea and fair-trade vanilla bean, Café sans Café is a rich black tea with notes of tobacco and chocolate. It satisfied her coffee cravings, and Dana soon realized she might be onto something.
Soon afterwards, Dana moved to China to teach English. There, she discovered a whole history of tea that had been previously unknown to her. She describes this time in China as one of exploration, where access to exotic ingredients fueled her research.
She moved back to the U.S in 2008, and began working at the Teahouse in Santa Fe under Dionne Christian’s tutelage. Dionne is a master tea blender, and Dana credits her with much of her knowledge.
“While I was boomeranging between New Mexico and Georgia, I was trying to decide what my next venture would be,” Dana says. “My dad visited me soon after I moved to Taos, and he opened my eyes to what I am truly passionate about. I had scales, bowls of ingredients and all kinds of herbs all over my kitchen. It was then that I knew I had to give blending tea a real shot.”
In the summer of 2014, she started tea.o.graphy to see if she could improve tea service in Taos. As a tea-drinker she wanted something fresher, and so she set out to see how many restaurants she could place her blends in. Her first account was Gutiz, the popular Latin-French fusion restaurant. When they increased from serving 100 to 900 cups of tea per month by 2015, Dana saw that there was space in the market for handcrafted, locally blended teas.
Now, two years later, she is in 50 locations throughout Taos. Taos Ski Valley and the Blake Hotel offer her tea as amenities in the rooms. She has begun a similar relationship with Ojo Caliente and is increasing her reach in Santa Fe. Additionally, tea.o.graphy maintains accounts in Washington, D.C., New York, Boulder, Los Angeles and Georgia, including the Jimmy Carter presidential library in Atlanta.
Dana has been able to grow the company organically and sustain manageable growth. Until recently, the business development has been driven by only herself and her partner, Steve Chavez. The exposure tea.o.graphy receives from the Taos accounts as contributed a lot, and their website supports orders from all over the world now.
Now, tea.o.graphy employs three people part-time along with Dana and Steve. Because of the nature of the workforce in Taos, part-time positions are easier to fill than full-time. Dana believes they can really expand their market, but she never wants to lose the handcrafted quality of the product. As the company grows, the employee base will also grow because the work is so hands-on. Dana has a firm commitment to sourcing as many ingredients as they can locally and, when that is impossible, tea.o.graphy sources from fair-trade and organic farms from around the world. If the question of manufacturing-line automation ever arises, Dana would rather hire more people to keep the hand-crafted nature of her blends alive.
Just this summer, tea.o.graphy opened a quiet little storefront that Dana calls “the secret tea shop of Taos”. Tucked into a courtyard off Kit Carson Road (129 Kit Carson Road, Suite C), Dana says they don’t advertise their presence there because they don’t want to compete with the accounts that support them in Taos. Because it’s also tea.o.graphy’s production space, it’s a working environment but does welcome visitors when they discover it.
Opening the retail store helped the company add another employee, and it’s showing strong signs of growth every day. The open-kitchen format allows people to watch them blend and create the teas. The retail shop includes local potters and other artisans, and inventory changes frequently. Dana wants to start hosting tea-blending workshops and basic tea classes, and also wants to project a series of documentaries in movies in the courtyard during warmer months to explore the origins of various teas.
“The world of tea is endless, and there’s an audience for that here in Taos,” Dana says. “People are finding that tea is a lot like wine–there is so much and so many different kinds, and it has had such an impact on so many different histories around the world.”
Tea.o.graphy launched at Taos Food Center’s commercial kitchen, and Dana is quick to applaud the help she received there. Taos Entrepreneurial Networking (TEN) was also instrumental in helping her find her footing as a business owner, and she won their spring elevator pitch competition earlier this year.
“Rose Reza of TEN and the RDC has really inspired us to put ourselves out there more. She encouraged us to be part of the elevator pitch, and we were so surprised we actually won. It was just the bump we needed to accrue some ingredients for a really larger order we had to fill,” says Dana.
Tea.o.graphy is on track to quadruple its business this year, proving Dana’s claim true that people are starting to see the value of handcrafted products and quality again.
“Historically, there has not been a true tea culture established in the U.S. But that is changing, and there is a lot of space for a niche tea company like us in this growing industry. As a country and community, I think we are thirsty for healthy additions to our daily rituals, and tea is certainly finding a loving place in the hearts and homes of many. We are so grateful to be a part of it!”
Dana has put down roots in Taos with a business that has a constantly shifting landscape. As she introduces Northern New Mexico to the world of tea that she has artfully crafted into a thriving business, the Regional Development Corporation will continue to help her grow and expand.
To learn more, visit www.tea-o-graphy.com.