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It’s Personal

In graduate school I took a class on how to write a business plan, and my professor (who made millions by running cable lines in office buildings) said only one thing I remember – business is personal. The people you do business with are as important as the deals you make. If you can’t trust them to take care of your product, convey it properly to customers, and pay their bills on time, you will be out of business. This is particularly important in a food business where freshness and presentation are critical. You also need to observe your customers in action to learn what is working (or not) with your products, and identify opportunities to expand your business further.

Over the past month, Amai began providing Tea Sweets to two stores I am proud to be involved with; Takashimaya in New York City and Teaism in Washington DC. Both stores are carrying our new 24-cookie Tea Sweets Gift Box, and Teaism is also carrying the 3-packs in all four flavors. You will notice that the gift box displayed in Takashimaya and Teaism is different than the one available online, which allows them to have an exclusive product in stores. We’re in the process of having more custom boxes made to offer online, but this will take a little time.

My partner Kathryn is the one who initially contacted each store and showed them the product. She also handles sales orders and most day-to-day contact with our wholesale customers, leaving me free to bake and manage operations. I am grateful for her sales efforts and am happy to have someone else show our products to the world since I feel too close to everything to present it objectively (and I am usually covered in flour and unpresentable to the public anyway). While having Kathryn as a sales partner is a huge advantage for the company, it leaves me behind the scenes, receiving feedback from customers second hand. Comments are different when heard directly, and I feel it is important to personally connect with our customers and see how things are going myself.

I made it my mission to get out of the kitchen the past few weeks. I went down to Washington DC for a weekend to visit Teaism and spent the afternoon having tea at Takashimaya in New York City. Takashimaya is only a few minutes from my house but my crazy schedule barely allows time for lunch most days, and unless I made a plan to escape my regular duties I would have never made it over. Both trips taught me a great deal about what each business is facing and how our products fit in.

I stopped by Teaism on a Monday during the lunch rush hour, and the store was packed with people ordering from their innovative menu of sushi, noodles, rice, teas, desserts and much more. The interesting thing to me was the variety of people visiting the store. One man looked like he spends his day working in a garage, while others looked like they just stepped out of a law office. Everyone seemed comfortable in the store and the line didn’t slow down once. Our 3-packs were sitting on the counter by the cash register, in what seemed like the best location in the store, but while I was watching no one bought any. What could I learn from this?

I tried to think of every reason our cookies were not flying off the shelf while I watched. Things I asked myself:

  • Were they noticed? Most people were looking overhead at the menu while ordering, not at the counter in front of them.
  • Were people able to tell what they were? Our cookies were displayed in a basket, leaving the label visible but blocking the view of the cookies themselves.
  • Did they look appetizing? Maybe people just don’t want to try them.
  • Was it the right time of day to observe? Maybe it was simply that customers at lunchtime don’t want pre-wrapped cookies and are only interested in the meals.

Based on reorder numbers I know they are selling well, so it could have been bad observation timing. Regardless, there is something to learn in the answers to all of these questions, and more observation must be done.

While I was at Teaism I had the opportunity to talk to the owner, who told me that she was concerned that her staff wasn’t going to come in that day because of the immigrant strike. It was a good reminder that businesses face many other problems besides selling my cookies, and that their daily issues need to be considered when following up with them in the future.

On my visit to Takashimaya I was so excited to see our box I wanted to tell everyone in the store that I made it. I even (embarassingly) took pictures. Once I regained my composure, I approached the manager and introduced myself and asked how everything was going. She told me that she loved the cookies, but needed more information. Customers had been asking for nutrition information, particularly around amounts of salt and sugar used. Since we are a small company we are only required to list the ingredients used in our product, and do not have to list nutrition facts on the label. Based on her feedback I realize this is a critical piece of information to customers and that we need to invest time in making this available, even if it is not required. The manager also wanted to know what the “Best Before:” expiration date really means, and how long the product will actually be good for. Our products are dated for freshness, not based on when they will actually spoil, but that leads customers to question what to do after the “Best Before” date has passed. This is a good point to consider.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get out of your usual space and see how the rest of the world views your hard work. Spending time in these two stores, and meeting the owners and managers of each, was so refreshing. It gives me a sense of focus going forward. It was also fun to have tea in both stores, and take a break from the heat of the kitchen.

Takashimaya New York
693 5th Ave (Between 54th Street and 55th Street)
New York, NY 10022
(212) 350-0111 phone
Subway: E, V at 5th Ave


400 8th Street N.W.
Washington DC 20004
(202) 638-6010 phone
*This location has a great shop selling tea products located next to the restaurant

2009 R Street N.W.
Washington DC 20009
(202) 667-3827 phone

800 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington DC, 20006
(202) 835-2233 phone


olivia says on May 18th, 2006 at 2:51 pm:

I picked up a box at Takashimaya on Saturday since I was visiting NY. I have yet to try them, but was slightly disappointed at the discrepency in the price granted they are a high-end store.

site admin says on May 18th, 2006 at 6:52 pm:

Hi Olivia — Thank you for stopping by Takashimaya and buying a box. Can you elaborate on the discrepancy you mentioned? The box we sell to Takashimaya is much more elaborately designed than the one we sell online, with a detailed pattern, diagonal opening with 2 levels inside and a bamboo clasp, which leads to a higher price. It is also a retail store, and what we offer online is direct to customers so we have more control over the price. The cookie 3-packs held inside both are exactly the same. I’d love to hear your thoughts after you dig in. Thanks again for trying them.

Kristin says on May 18th, 2006 at 9:22 pm:

How cool is that?! I want to go to the stores just to say “MY SISTER MADE THIS!” Congrats..I can’t wait to someday go to the stores and purchase it myself!

shuna fish lydon says on May 18th, 2006 at 10:51 pm:

I think it is such a gift that you are sharing this process with us. It is indeed very important to take a look or a taste from the other side. Recently I cut one of my cakes into 10 as opposed to 8. Although we make more money on the latter, the former just seemed like too big a slice to get through.

I eat desserts for dinner, but I have to remember that most of the world just wants a small sweet treat.

Do you belong to The Baker’s Dozen?

Kung Foodie Kat says on May 20th, 2006 at 4:19 pm:

I agree with Shuna…it’s really great to get an inside look at what you’re experiencing in growing this business. It’s cool to see it all through your eyes!

Gabriella True says on May 21st, 2006 at 2:54 am:

WOW. I am incredibley impressed. great design and great stores you are in. I am going to pass this on to my friend who owns a gourmet store and is a tea lover.
My Life As A Reluctant Housewife

emily says on May 22nd, 2006 at 11:15 am:

I live in DC, and work in a building that is equidistant from two Teaisms. I’ve been visiting your blog for a year or so and love the beauty of your cookies. I can’t wait to grab a box the next time I have lunch there!

Kelli says on May 23rd, 2006 at 6:43 am:

Hi Shuna– I was invited to join Baker’s Dozen, but I lost touch with the woman. I’ll have to pursue that again, I’d like to join. Are you a member? How is it?

Kung Foodie and Gabriella– Thanks for the words of encouragement!

Emily– I was really impressed with the selection of the Teaism menu, I would eat lunch there all the time if I lived nearby. If you do try our cookies, let us know what you think.

KB says on May 23rd, 2006 at 9:45 am:

How did you go about researching, testing and getting packaging. I think presentation and personality is very important when it comes to product and product placement. you definitely have that going for you in your packaging. i have some packaging ideas, but i’m sure there are better ones and dont know where to begin looking for a manufacturer especially one for a small order start up. any advice or recommendations?

olivia says on May 23rd, 2006 at 2:13 pm:

i tried the cookies and they were very good (actually i’ve only tried the green tea so far but they were great). the discrepency in pricing was a reference to the fact that i was just kind of very surprised that they were 38.00 at Takashimaya versus the 22.00+ shipping on the site. i do love the packaging, it goes well! good luck! will definitely need to get more cookies for a friends bridal shower.

Kelli says on May 23rd, 2006 at 4:13 pm:

Hi KB– Packaging has been the most difficult part of this process so far. The discussion really deserves its own post, but I’ll try summarize here. The best way to get started is to use what is available stock — several online places like Uline.com, USBox.com, Papermart.com, impactimages.com offer plastic bags, heat sealers and standard boxes you can use to get things going. Eventually you’ll want your own custom made stuff, and the best way to find options for this is to attend trade shows or try to find a packaging broker in your area. Minimum order quantities is a huge obstacle for a start-up, but if you think long term and promise to order more in the future, sometimes companies will work with you (for example, you can order 50,000 of something now, but only use and pay for 5,000 at a time, they store the rest until you are ready to use it — I think this is called “warehousing”, but I’m still familiarizing myself with all the terms). So much to learn!

Hi Olivia– I’m so glad you enjoyed the cookies. I can’t wait to get more products in the stores — I have so many ideas for weddings and bridal showers. In time :)

Jacqueline says on May 30th, 2006 at 7:14 pm:

I will be going to Teaism sometime this week to look for the cookies!

By the way, did you notice that Teaism got a mention on the DC edition of Food Network’s “40 Dollars a Day” show?

Jacqueline says on June 1st, 2006 at 7:11 pm:

I went to the Teaism branch in Lafayette Park today and they didn’t have the cookies. Guess I’ll visit the Dupont one later this week.

Kelli says on June 1st, 2006 at 7:32 pm:

Hmmm…they must have sold out! The owner told me she was bringing them to all three locations, but I only personally saw it in the 8th street location myself. Thanks for trying.

I didn’t know they were on the food network, I’ll try to catch that show (maybe the cookies will be hiding in the back :) )

keiko says on June 11th, 2006 at 9:53 am:

Kelli, it’s great to hear the fantastic progress and responses – the packaging looks so gorgeous, did you start thinking about selling then in Europe yet? :) I wish I could have been to the tasting party, it must have been great!

Tanya says on September 15th, 2006 at 2:58 pm:

*squeal* you’re the one who made the tea cookies at teaism?
sorry for the fan adoration… but that’s so exciting!

Brian says on May 7th, 2008 at 3:26 pm:

Celebrate the Grand Opening of Robeks this Thursday & Saturday (Noon to 3pm both days) with a FREE Smoothie (choice of 12oz Strawnana Berry or Mahalo Mango) at the new Tysons store at 8359 Leesburg Pike. (no coupon necessary).

You now have a healthy and delicious fast-food alternative with Robeks smoothies, fresh juices, made-to-order wraps, farm fresh salads and more. They’re great for kids and adults alike as an energy-boosting snack or meal.

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Lovescool is the documentation of a journey to discover what sweet things are out there, why people love them so much, and perhaps what it takes to start something new.

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An interest, that turned into a blog, that turned into a career. Kelli Bernard is now the owner and baker of Amai Tea & Bake House.

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Blog posts are dropped into categories like cookies on a cookie-sheet.

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