In 2010, Evy Chen ’11 won first place in the Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship (E3) Expo with her concept for a high-end tea house.
Three years later, Chen’s tea house idea had morphed into EvyTea, a bottled beverage company that pioneered the concept of “cold-brewed” tea to consumers in the Boston area. And this July, Chen opened a tasting room where customers can sample her brews in an industrial-cool, yet cozy, space.
“It sort of came full circle,” Chen said.
Tea Bar by EvyTea, housed in a former auto repair shop in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, isn’t a retail outlet in the vein of the Teavana chain, said Chen, or Edgerton Tea House for that matter, which was the concept that won Chen the E3 Expo. Nor does she call it a café.
She likens it to a brewery’s tap room, where she can introduce customers to a range of cold brews that they can later take home with them. In addition to brews on tap or bottles to go, she also offers hot tea, loose tea, and pastries from local bakers.
The big difference with EvyTea, however, is not how it’s sold, but the way it’s made. It’s not iced tea, which is brewed hot and then chilled. It’s brewed in cold water for at least 16 hours, which brings out subtle flavor notes that hot water can rob from the leaves, she said.
The idea came to her via a barista friend.
“He introduced me to cold-brewed coffee at the end of 2012. I was quite blown away by the texture of cold-brewed coffee, and how different an animal it was [from] the coffee I was used to…how clean and gentle a liquid it was,” she said.
“I knew tea, because I grew up with it,” said Chen, who was raised in southern China. “So right away, I thought tea would be a better medium [for cold brew] than coffee.”
Tea has a much larger global market than coffee, but in most of the tea-drinking world, it’s taken hot. Americans, on the other hand, aren’t as educated or discriminating when it comes to hot tea, but they consume lots of iced tea. In that space in between, Chen saw a niche.
“One thing I did right from the very beginning is I embraced the difference,” Chen said. “So instead of saying, ‘This is what everybody else is doing; how do I beat them at it?’ I said, ‘This is what everyone else is doing; how do I stand out?’
“And I think that’s a very Emerson thing to do,” she added.
Chen spent 2013 experimenting with various leaves to find which worked best. Not all teas are created equal when it comes to cold brewing; certain young, grassy, green teas just don’t respond well to the icy water, Chen said.
Using funds from a Kickstarter campaign, Chen eventually launched her business. A friend who was attending the Fancy Food Show, a large specialty food expo, in Washington, DC, let Chen have a corner of the table, where a Whole Foods buyer found her and agreed to carry EvyTea in Boston stores.
Later that year, EvyTea took first place in the ready-to-drink iced tea category at the North American Tea Championship, and the same year, she was named to boston.com's The Hive 25 Under 25 list. In 2014, she was named to Zagat's 30 Under 30 Boston list.
There were still lessons to be learned. EvyTea started off in little champagne bottles, which looked beautiful but “failed miserably.” The bottles were too tall to be stocked on prime eye-level shelves, and customers had to wait until they got home to open them, corked as they were.
So in 2014, Chen switched to shorter, more cost-effective, ready-to-drink bottles, and today she’s in 200 stores, with plans to expand to cover the entire East Coast.
“We’re not an established, established business, but we definitely have our own following,” she said.
Back at Tea Bar on a recent Friday afternoon, customers could sample summery offerings such as hibiscus tea with pineapple and lemon; green tea with fig and mango; oolong tea with lychee and lemongrass; black tea with strawberry and basil; green tea matcha (Chen’s current “obsession,” brewed from a finely ground powder); and, for those still hung up on the java, cold-brewed coffee.
Visitors enter the tasting room through a front patio with seating and pot after pot of the herbs Chen grows for her tea infusions.
With the exception of the shelving in the tasting room, which Chen and her four employees renovated themselves over four months, all the furnishings and décor are second-hand or repurposed from something else. The fencing around the patio was built from pallets that hold boxes of EvyTea in the warehouse/operations area visible behind the tasting room. A pendant light is shaded by an authentic Vietnamese rice farmer’s hat.
Chen said when she was starting her business, “that free-spirit aspect of Emerson sort of kicked in,” as well as the unfailingly supportive Emerson alumni network.
“I think the tightness of the Emerson community is also quite interesting, because we’re a really small school and the network is also quite small compared to, say, BU. But people who are within Emerson definitely recognize that Emerson is where they want to be and they’re very proud of that and they’re very focused on helping [students and alumni],” Chen said.
A week earlier, Chen said, she had dinner with Morgan First ’05, co-founder and CEO of online wine hub Second Glass, who had visited one of Chen’s Emerson classes as a guest entrepreneur and was now talking business with her as a peer.
Chen said starting her own business from the ground up has been an unbelievable amount of work, something that might not be obvious to a would-be entrepreneur. Chen, who worked in marketing between graduating from Emerson and starting EvyTea, said she went from working 40 hours a week to working 120 hours.
She said it’s important to have a goal and a roadmap, but equally important to enjoy the trip whenever possible.
“[A]t the same time, make friends, meet customers who really enjoy and protect your brand, and be able to have fun [even] in the worst type of situation. It just helps as a person, not just as an entrepreneur,” she said.
Tea Bar by EvyTea is located at 253 Amory Street, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.