Knook #21: Libertine Blends
The coffee scene in New Zealand gets a lot of attention. But a growing niche for New Zealand, and one that doesn’t get a lot of airtime, is craft tea blends.
Jacqui Wales founded Libertine Blends in 2014, in Berhampore, Wellington, after feeling like she couldn’t find a tea that suited her taste and style. Jax is now based in London, but has continued building the business here. The brand has grown into a Wellington cafe staple, with a strong attention to the taste and quality of the blends.
Libertine Blends makes quality, New Zealand made tea blends, using organic and wildcrafted New Zealand natives, herbs and spices. The teas are blended in small batches, before being portioned, packaged and sealed by the fantastic crew. They sell direct to over 70 cafes, in a range of retail stores and through their online store.
I asked Jax how she got started with Libertine Blends.
“I always felt like Kiwis underdid tea. Coffee was crafted and sexy and nuanced, but tea wasn’t getting a look in, despite the potential. I looked at the brands and flavours out there, and I really felt like there wasn’t a tea there for me - it was all for nanas,” laughs Jax.
“From my first stint in the UK, I knew the scope for delicious tea infusions in New Zealand. I got through my first six months of being a mum, got settled into the routine and started feeling a bit bored. So I decided it was time to get this tea blending situation started.
“I started with blending tea at a local cafe in Berhampore. When I finished up my maternity leave, I went back to work but kept growing the tea business alongside the day job.
“I mainly started Libertine because I couldn’t find any tea I liked, but then I found that the Wellington entrepreneurial scene was great and I felt like I’d found my tribe."
I asked Jax what she saw as key factors of success for Libertine Blends.
“Firstly, we make delicious tea. Most of the tea that you buy is flavoured, rather than actually using the ingredients on the label - whereas our product has the actual ingredients present on the label. We bring a consistent quality to the product.
“Secondly, we’re also attractive to hospitality - a cafe can buy either loose leaf or tea temples. Hospitality businesses run tight margins and are cost sensitive, so we give them the ability to control portions and easily calculate profit off each tea. I've spent time working in cafes, and I understand that giving the cafes portion control provides a sort of comfort blanket for them.
“Another element is that tea blending is pretty intense - it’s an absolute palava to get a blend right. But when we create something, we know it’s unique. We then put a lot of effort into the naming and design into how we sell that blend, and that has really helped us to stick in people’s minds.”
I asked Jax what the biggest challenge in her business journey has been.
“Oh, undoubtedly the period of lockdown. 80 percent of our sales are to hospitality so we knew we'd need to switch up our sales focus, and quickly. We focused on direct marketing to meet the needs of tea lovers who wanted to enjoy great tea at home. It was incredible the level of support for NZ business, and our online sales really made a huge difference in maintaining some semblance of cashflow throughout lockdown,” Jax says.
“I found it really difficult being in the UK because I was so removed from New Zealand. It’s really difficult to market in that environment - especially when you’re not sure of how people are feeling - so I was regularly in touch with friends and family, and found Instagram to be a great indicative gauge of the public sentiment around coronavirus.
“We’re still working out what demand will look like as we come out of the crisis - and how we manage supply through that. In the meantime, we’ve leaned into online sales and it’s been really encouraging seeing a lot of first time Libertine buyers making their purchase through our site. It's incredibly complimentary that they’re going out of their way to purchase our tea!”
Jax and her family currently live in London. I asked Jax what it’s like to run her business from overseas, and what tips she’d give for others trying to manage that.
“In terms of the day-to-day, I find living overseas helps bring new ideas into the business. I’m very used to thinking across timezones easily, and I’m happy to use the plethora of tools to communicate and get things done without being in person,” says Jax.
“As a business owner, it’s easy to get sucked into the little things. I’ve found that I don't need to be part of a lot of the conversations that happen through the business. My team knows I'm generally 6 hours away from an answer so they work it out for themselves and I trust them to do that.
“One of our team who started with blending the teas is now the business manager and has grown with the business, so there’s that integrity of knowledge within the business. So that enables me to focus on the big picture and strategic direction of Libertine and you would not believe how much clarity that brings to the business.
“The other element has been seeing trends emerge and make their way to New Zealand. I see all sorts of tea selections through travelling around here which is great. In saying that, there’s an incredible wealth of choice here but a huge variance in quality, so I absolutely love going home, and appreciating the quality available in New Zealand.”
I asked Jax what advice she’d give to other business owners.
Says Jax, “This is what worked for me - I focused on making sure I wasn’t at the centre of the business. It’s enabled me to bring real clarity to the business without being bogged down in the day-to-day.
“In my view it helps the business and grows the owner. It enables me to make strategic decisions most of the time, and not worry about the blending because my amazing team handles that. It’s also pushed me and kept me passionate about the brand and business.
“I’d also say get a good accountant (shoutout to Harriet Smith at Outside Accounting) - it’s never a waste of money!”
I asked Jax what’s next for Libertine.
“We have a rebrand coming up - that all went on hold throughout COVID so we’ll be working through that!
“But we’re also looking to continue our sustainable growth and ensure we’ll be around for a long time to come.”
For more info and to shop, visit: https://www.libertineblends.co.nz/.