Meet the Producer: Comins Tea ~ the making of a great tea

by Silvana de Soissons17th February 2014

When we were deciding to set up The Foodie Bugle Shop, we decided to sell only what we loved ourselves and one of the favourite tea brands we wanted to stock was Comins Tea. The dedication and commitment with which Rob and Michelle Comins approached their newly founded venture was so impressive. They are a truly professional couple, devoted to bringing the finest tea garden leaf teas to Britain. Their tea room in Sturminster Newton is light, bright and buzzing, and their teawares and style is right on the pulse of where tea drinking is going in Britain.

To find out more about their journey, we asked them to tell us about their concept, their tea, their tea shop in Dorset and the challenges faced in bringing up baby twins at the same time as juggling a business! Here is what we found out.

Twins, Teas and Tables - The Creation of Comins Tea House ~ by Rob and Michelle Comins

We have always felt that there something special about family run businesses. They create a feeling that the many years of close knit effort and experience have resulted in the best quality product and service. But all family businesses have to start from somewhere, there is always a first generation. 

We are the first generation of tea importers in our family and are at the start of what has so far been an exciting albeit slightly mad family adventure, that we hope will see us spread the word on great tea for generations to come. 

Comins Tea House started trading online just over a year ago with the aim of providing great value, quality tea to our customers, and on the 23rd March 2013 we realised a ten year ambition and opened our first teahouse in the Dorset market town of Sturminster Newton. Many people ask us how, with three children under three, this is even possible. So this is the story of how we made our dream a reality, with the hope that for those of you out there who are wondering 'should we?' will definitely be left feeling 'we should!' 

We launched our online business in November 2011 selling our personally sourced Fine Tea collection and unique British Teaware range. We built and launched the business in the year after our son was born. Some people felt sorry for us with a new baby but we always saw the sleepless nights as a positive - we had never been awake for so many hours or had so much time to think and plan. We soon learned when not to talk to each other before we had had the first cup of tea of the day, but we had never been so productive, even if it was sometimes grouchy productiveness. The website was an important first step and soon developed into us going to markets and events to meet customers and share our tea, teaware and our story.

Having spent many moments of our married life in numerous tea shops we knew how much of the enjoyment of fine tea is linked to the tea experience itself. We always wanted a core part of our business to be a unique, contemporary teahouse where we could create a memorable tea experience for our customers. We knew that this was not an easy task. We had seen how specialist stores often struggled to survive on the British high street and often needed to diversify and diversify from their original concept just to survive. Having spent time living in Belgium where specialist tea shops thrive, and having always been prepared to travel to visit and enjoy excellent places for tea, we decided that the best solution would be to find a family home with a shop attached and work hard to make it a destination in itself.

We were beginning to lose heart when we found the perfect property in November 2010. The Quarterjack is a beautiful Georgian house with half of the ground floor dedicated to a shop.  Located in the heart of the Blackmore Vale on a hill leading to a bridge that crosses the River Stour, the house and shop has had a long and varied history.  Its previous incarnations included a hotel with a card shop, an old printer's shop and an antique shop to name a few. When we stumbled across the house, the shop was no longer in use, instead serving as a living room. After applying and nervously waiting for planning permission, we finally received the go-ahead in early 2011. We were one step closer to realising our ambition. 

With the daunting renovation lying ahead of us we soon found out that our family would be growing by not one but two babies. With no history of twins in the family we were quite surprised to say the least, but also excited. Prior to moving into The Quarterjack, and since launching online, Rob had taken care of the day to day issues of running the business, packing and posting orders as well as caring for our 18 month old son during the day. Michelle had continued to work full time and in the evenings led the creative and organisational side of the business. The arrival of twins would present a new logistical challenge, one that on paper possibly looked like madness. Despite this we decided to move ahead, stay true to our initial goals and maintain a belief we would find a way, perhaps just over a longer period of time than previously planned. 

The girls arrived in August and made our task easier by being relatively calm, finding comfort in each other’s presence early on. Our son continued to support the cause by preferring to drink milk from his Comins Tea bowl and serving Darjeeling, or more usually his own creations from his wooden kitchen. His funny dances or strange out of context comments often served to break up more tense moments. The twins enjoyed being in the thick of it, and in our company, either in the shop while we made decisions on next steps or sitting at the table adding a few gurgles to meetings with our web designers. We took the attitude early on that, being a family business, it is healthy for our children to understand that we have to work hard and also for them to see what we were building. After all, in the future they will hopefully ask "Where were we when you set all this up?" We also feel increasingly motivated to teach our children that "everything comes from somewhere", be that the tea we drink and sell or the pork that we source locally to make our Japanese dumplings. In an increasingly disposable society we believe this is an important lesson for the next generation.

On the surface it all sounds very idyllic, but we can't pretend it was not without its challenges. Babies and mess do not go too well together. Stopping a meeting half way through to change a nappy is far from ideal, nor is talking to anyone on the phone holding a squawking baby. All our little issues led us to learn about people and the fact that we all have real lives and real life isn't perfect.  All our suppliers and tradespeople seemingly embraced the chaos and we thank them for smiling through it despite what they must have been thinking.  We also had a huge support from our families with both the physical work and the childcare: again they accepted the madness and really made it all seem quite a normal undertaking. 

We had made the decision from the start to do as much of the work as possible ourselves, Rob used to work in property renovation before turning to tea so had many, but by no mean all, of the skills required.  The learning curve was steep but entirely necessary due to our exacting requirements and tight budget.  The initial days were made up of sharing the care of the babies, whilst attempting to do the necessary work during the day and entertaining our energetic son.  We soon got used to using spare time for the business and the mental challenges that this stop-start way of working brought.  Evening times became a key time for work.  We even planned for the time spent feeding drowsy babies during the night with Rob researching design issues at 3am on his smartphone whilst the girls fed. Our loo’s sliding doors were sourced, designed and their fitting planned in these early hours. Sounds crazy now but it worked back then and gave a sense of momentum and fulfillment the next morning. 

Our approach to sourcing materials and products did not make life any easier. A large focus of our business is the promotion of provenance and this is key in the sourcing of our teas and tea ware. Opening our Tea House was to be no different - although this has meant that everything has taken much longer than expected and in some cases has cost us more. However, our belief is that we are building a shop that will last a lifetime and that using local businesses, suppliers and materials as much as possible is vital.  Many of our materials and food products were discovered at local events, or though meeting someone who, on hearing our plans, made a suggestion of a producer we may like. We soon learned that sharing our enthusiasm not only enthused others but led us to fascinating people and businesses we would probably not have discovered otherwise. We discovered {and are still discovering} that there was a vast network throughout Sturminster Newton alone just waiting to be tapped into.

One particular example of this is the wood for our counter and tables. Using a local wood was important to us and we found a wonderful local woodyard from a woodturner we had exhibited next to at an event.  We selected our timber {still with bark} and found someone to turn it into planks we could use. All was going well until we were informed that the wood had too high moisture content to be used for our purpose. We could wait for it to be dried but this would take too long.  The woodsman was very understanding and recommended a few alternative sources which eventually led us to a family business that could provide us with what we needed and also tell us exactly where the local Ash trees we would use grew.  They even came to the shop personally to oversee the delivery.  We are immensely proud of our counter and tables and certainly don't regret the time, stress and effort they took to source and build. 

Another decision critical to the tea house was who would provide our crockery. This was the simplest decision of them all. Michelle had met a ceramicist called Rachel Dormor many years before we launched and she agreed to make our tea bowls, teapots and tableware for us. Her ceramics are beautiful and really add to the whole Comins Tea experience.

So let's end where it all started, with our fine teas which remain at the heart of our business.  Despite all the excitement and challenges of building our tea house we have maintained and broadened our contact with our tea gardens and partners and continued to build our range of fine teas. We have introduced a new range of Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese teas to our Tea House which will also be available online. Our aim has remained the same.  We want to bring great value, quality loose leaf tea to our customers and to create a unique environment in which to enjoy them.  To compliment these we have used local ingredients and suppliers to create a simple menu. Blueberry scones with homemade jam, cakes created in our tea house kitchen, delicious stuffed flatbreads {made by a fourth generation baker less than ten miles away} and our take on our favourite Japanese Gyoza dumplings {we learned the art of folding on a course in the Darjeeling foothills}.  We will also be offering the Comins take on afternoon tea, with a seasonal weekly menu.

So, as we sit in our Tea House and ask if all the stress and hard work been worth it, we would say that it definitely has. We wouldn't change a thing.

Further Information

The Foodie Bugle Shop: www.thefoodiebugleshop.com

Follow on Twitter: @TheFoodieBugle

Comins Tea: www.cominsteahouse.co.uk

Follow on Twitter: @CominsTeaHouse

About the Author

Silvana de Soissons is the founder of The Foodie Bugle Shop and its journal. You can follow her on Twitter @SilvanadeS and @TheFoodieBugle.

 
 
Comins Leaf Teas ~ in The Foodie Bugle Shop, photographed by Jason Ingram at www.jasoningram.co.uk @jasonphotos

Comins Leaf Teas ~ in The Foodie Bugle Shop, photographed by Jason Ingram at www.jasoningram.co.uk @jasonphotos

The Comins Tea logo

The Comins Tea logo

Comins Tea Silver Leaf needles

Comins Tea Silver Leaf needles

The Comins Tea Room in Sturminster Newton, Dorset.

The Comins Tea Room in Sturminster Newton, Dorset.

Teaware from Comins Tea.

Teaware from Comins Tea.

Available from the Comins Tea Room.

Available from the Comins Tea Room.