In 2019 a new tea room and tea shop in Brooklyn, New York, created a local buzz for its imported teas. Having been opened in the predominantly Black Bedford-Stuyvesant area in December 2108 by Jamila McGill and Alfonso Wright, Brooklyn Tea seemed destined for success.
Brooklyn Tea serves more than 60 tea varieties, delicious pastries. They also offer a vegan menu that includes vegan waffles, English muffins, vegan sausage. And cookies adorned with the face of late Brooklyn rap icon Biggie Smalls.
Customers flock to the shop also for its tranquil vibes and welcoming spirit.
“We try to take the pretentiousness out of tea,” McGill told Finurah, although they also encourage new tea drinkers to learn more about tea.
Once the store opened, the entrepreneurial pair had people waiting in line out the door.
Then the pandemic hit.
When New York City shut down restaurants in 2020, Wright said they lost 85 percent of their revenue. On top of this, due to the shop’s street location, Brooklyn Tea could not participate in the NYC outdoor dining initiative.
“We went from a bustling social-gathering place to Jamila and I watching Netflix documentaries in the middle of the day because we had zero customers,” Wright told Bloomberg.
“COVID was definitely a bummer in the beginning. It was everything every small business says — gut-wrenching,” shared McGill to Finurah.
Brooklyn Tea cut staff hours but stayed open seven days a week. “We had customers who would stop by to buy from us just to make sure we stayed open,” said McGill. “Many of them would say it was their one venture outside for the day.”
Still, McGill and Wright had to reexamine their business model.
The then-engaged couple was left with no other choice but to try and find a pandemic pivot.
Since they already had an online presence, they decided to concentrate on their e-commerce store. They launched new products such as an “immunity box” of teas aimed at customers who were now more focused on their health.
The immunity-boosting box includes blueberry rooibos tea, Healer tea, Cold Killer tea, and ginger turmeric tea. There’s also an optional reusable stainless steel tea infuser basket.
“We realized that our customer wasn’t looking to socialize; they wanted a tangible way to improve and take control of their health,” explains McGill.
By the end of May 2020, Brooklyn Tea saw an uptick in sales.
Brooklyn Tea has been featured by the likes of USA Today, Bloomberg, BuzzFeed, and Cosmopolitan. Television media coverage in June 2020 caught the attention of Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the popular TV series “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Rhimes raved about Brooklyn Tea on Twitter. “I just ordered SO MUCH TEA. My favorite discovery of the day,” she posted.
The next day, singer Beyoncé added McGill and Wright in her Black Parade Route, a directory of hundreds of Black-owned businesses nationwide.
The celebrity mentions sparked a significant spike in social media followers for the shop –Brooklyn Tea’s Instagram following almost tripled, Bloomberg reported. And more orders started to roll in.
When they re-opened to in-person dining, sales continued to grow, and the now-married couple is looking to open a second location in Atlanta.
Ever since going into business together, the couple has been pragmatic. Before they opened, they started prepping years before. In 2015, Wright became a certified tea sommelier. In 2016 the couple began organizing their business, and Wright created original blends for their brand.
Tea had been a part of their courting as a couple. When Wright and McGill first started dating in 2014, he “wined and dined” her with tea. “He’d brew up these pots of tea; it was his way of courting me,” recalls McGill, who admits to not knowing much about tea at the time. “Alfonso grew up in a Jamaican household where they had tea every day, so when we first started going out, he would brew up tea for me,” McGill told Finurah. Once she began to love tea as much as Alfonso, they decided to open a tearoom.
“I had only known tea in a teabag,” she said. “Now, yes, I am one of those people who has to have loose tea. With loose tea, you can see the tea in all its drama — I won’t go back to the teabag!”
The couple scoped out the competition.
“From then on, our dates after this we would tea-hopping — it was part dating and part espionage,” she says about checking out the potential competition.
For McGill, going into business with her husband-to-be was natural. “With couples, you don’t have to fake it,” she said. “This is the first time I am truly my authentic self; I would say the same for him. In the professional world, you have restrictions, and you have to work within those boundaries. Having our own business allows us to voice our concerns quicker and leads us to a resolution sooner. We can also be more creative.”
They opened an online version of Brooklyn Tea in 2017, opening the brick-and-mortar location in 2018.
The couple, who married in August 2021, said they are still working out the kinks of having a new and growing business.
“We want to get smarter and more efficient at online fulfillment. We want to continue to figure out our customers’ needs and evolve,” said McGill. “We want to add to the lives of our customers.”