Developing UK's 1st Chilled Ready-To-Drink Vegan Tea Lattes

In Conversation with Tina Chen, Founder of HumaniTea

Tea or chai, whatever you call it, has been a constant love of my life. Its what I need to start my days, to end my days and to get through the day. Tea is not just a beloved beverage; it is a perfect excuse to chit chat with your colleagues in the office, a great companion to samosas and a wonderful therapist to your problems. It is basically a one-size-fits-all kinda soulmate; it serves as a perfect match for you irrespective of your zodiac sign.

Now, while I do love a good cup of tea, it is not something you can easily find anywhere.  Definitely not on the shelves of a supermarket. At least that’s what I used to think before I got to talk with Tina Chen.

Tina Chen is the Founder and Chief Tea Officer of the company, HumaniTea, and is on a mission to bring vegan tea lattes that are brewed from actual tea leaves, instead of a concentrated syrup, to the supermarket shelves. These chilled ready-to-drink vegan tea lattes are made from oat milk, which is considered a sustainable dairy milk alternative, and will soon be launched on a bigger scale in the UK.   A few days ago, I called Tina to talk about the ‘tea’licious work she is doing and to learn more about her journey as an entrepreneur.

Tina Chen- Founder and Chief Tea Officer of HumaniTea

How did you come up with the idea?

It has to do with my background. I am a Taiwanese- American and I grew up drinking a lot of cold milky tea which is, in turn, inspired by bubble teas. It was very popular in Taiwan and the US and when I came to London for my studies, I saw it becoming popular here. When I looked further into the market, I found that there are a lot of coffee lattes and not a lot of tea lattes. So I thought why not bring that also to the market. So that’s where the original idea came from. A lot of teas available in supermarkets, are really high in sugar and they don’t use tea leaves but they use a concentrate instead.  I wanted to create something, that is healthier & lower in sugar, using actual tea leaves.

Where did the product trials begin?

The business was founded in December 2018 and the trials began slightly before that. It was more around consumer research,  so probably around November time. I was just talking with people about the idea and then we did blind taste tests at my University, Imperial College. I made samples and placed them along with the products, you can buy currently in London, for comparison and to get feedback on the flavour. From the feedback, I was able to refine the recipe. I think the best way to see if a product has potential  is actually through sales because that means people are ready to part with their money for your product. After getting the feedback and refining the recipe, I went to the farmers market to start selling the samples to see if there is a market for it.

You have lived and studied in the UK as well as in the US. So why did you choose the UK to start your business?

I am American; I grew up in Los Angeles. I did my last semester of college in London. That’s when I first came to London and I just fell in love with the city, with everything it has to offer- the diversity and the culture. I had a great time here. So, after I worked for a few years, I wanted to do my masters. I decided to come back here and chose to do MBA in London. Why I started the business in the UK instead of the US? Because I felt like I had a really strong network from my MBA and I thought why not utilise that for starting my business.

What are some of the challenges you have had along the way?

I think when starting a business, people will face all kinds of challenges but probably some of them will be similar amongst all founders. One could be time management. As a founder, I am very lucky to have people help me on ad-hoc basis. But I do everything- day-to-day operational activities- by myself. That makes it a little challenging to find time for self-care. Finding the balance is very important. Second would be arranging cashflow and financials as for starting a business you need capital. 

Third challenge would be - IP (Intellectual Property). Probably for a trademark, you could get oppositions, which I did. I got opposition from a company for my first trademark. And because I didn’t want to deal with a large corporate, I decided that after a few months I would come up with a new brand. That’s why we re-branded the name from myTea is Mighty to HumaniTea.

Now that a lot of companies are offering healthier, vegan, sustainable labels and supermarkets are becoming flooded with such products, a lot of consumers are doubting all these claims and aren’t always sure whom to trust. How are you going to make sure that people can trust your brand, that they can believe that what you say is actually true?

I think one of the reasons UK market is a good place for new food businesses to launch is that there is more consumer loyalty towards smaller brands because the founder is usually at the face of the business, unlike large corporate where you don’t know who is behind the business anymore because there are so many people involved. That’s where people do lose trust...when you see a big brand advertises “oh we are so healthy, we have zero calories”. They don’t advertise that in their ingredient list, there are a lot of additives, artificial flavours; they just show that it is a zero-calorie product. And people often don’t look at the ingredients; they just see ‘zero calories’. I think that’s where consumer do start trusting more in smaller brands because smaller brands have a lot more at stake. They can’t spend a lot on advertising. It comes down to the founder and their passion to offer healthier alternatives. They put so much effort into it. And when they put their face on their product’s name, they are putting themselves out there too and they can get criticized for creating a product that has false advertising. That’s why people buy into smaller brands.

Has Covid-19 affected your startup journey? If we were not facing a pandemic, do you think your process would have been different?

Yes, it would have been. Corona-virus has affected many people, many lives as well as businesses. If there was no COVID, the crowd-funding could have been easier. The crowd-funding started at the beginning of March and was supposed to run for 4 weeks, but then the COVID-19 hit UK mid-March. It was difficult time to be raising money; it felt difficult to ask people to donate money because a lot of employees were getting furloughed. However, at the same time, it also made me come up with more creative ways to tell people about my campaign but they were all true to what we did. What we did was, we donated 5% of our raise to support the COVID-19 solidarity fund set up World Health Organization. I felt that was a good way to support our business as well as to support those who are fighting coronavirus on front lines.

I also felt that, because I was staying indoors most of the time, I got to focus a lot more on my work and business. Obviously it wasn’t a good event to have happened, but the best we can do is to remain positive and try our best to work harder. I would say that this event has led to entrepreneurs becoming more creative to find solutions to the problems. We originally sold into farmers market and universities. But when COVID happened, it all shut down and our sales were no longer there. So then we started focusing on online sales, which we are still setting up.

What is the current status of your project and when can we expect for the product to be in the market?

We just finished our crowdfunding in May and we were able to raise enough for our first production run. Since then I have been working with a contract manufacturer. We need to set up the factory processes and we can hopefully start producing because everything else in is place. The product will be launched soon, hopefully by September.

[* This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]


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