When Abbi Siler opened her Hillcrest tea shop in 2018, it was as if she and her shop had always been part of the neighborhood. Now, even in the face of COVID-19, she's finding ways to build community. We caught up with Siler for the latest installment of our Small Business Talk series highlighting and demystifying the world of women in small business.
Tell us about Abbi's Teas & Things.
AS: Abbi's Teas & Things is coming up on its third birthday and offers a large selection of hand-crafted loose leaf tea blends and herbal tisanes. We are located on the corner of Ash and Kavanaugh in Hillcrest. Currently, we are set up as a tea stand out front on Wednesdays and Saturdays in order to keep ourselves and our customers safe during the pandemic. When we are operating in normal conditions, we offer a lovely little dining room for folks to sip tea, read and visit with friends. We also have a gift shop area and a private tea party room. You can also order online from our website at abbiteas.com.
Did you have a lightbulb moment when you knew this was what you were supposed to do?
AS: I've always wanted to own my own little shop/restaurant. The love of tea came later in college when I took a trip to the Yunnan Province of China. As any normal college kid, I was drinking an awful lot of coffee, but it just didn't sit quite right with my tummy, so I switched to tea around that time, too. At every corporate job I ever had as a young professional, I had my tea shelf where I kept my teas, tea accessories and often had my own water kettle on my desk or in my cubicle. When my father passed away in 2017, a lot of perspective came and I decided that my dreams didn't have to wait until I retired. After a little nudge from my mom, I opened the shop in February of 2018.
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What was it like to go full time with the shop?
AS: Amazing! I had been writing my own blog about tea for about six years at that point, and had various other tea side projects including a podcast. But to actually bring it to life and share my blends with people was incredible. I remember on the second week open, a little girl named Evie (I believe she was about 6 or 7) came by and told me how inspiring my shop was to her. I still have the letter she wrote and sent me after her first visit. It hangs in the tea shop to this day along with many other drawings and notes from other young friends of mine that I have met at the tea shop along the way!
What is something you wish you'd done differently when you launched?
AS: Handwritten labels! I started the shop not thinking about growing so fast so I would hand write out my labels for each bag of tea. I have since created formal packaging labels that make the packaging process much faster.
Since then, what was a moment that felt huge to you, but might not look that way to others?
AS: The biggest moments for me are when young people, whether in high school or elementary school, tell me my dream inspires them. Even during this pandemic, I have had the honor of hosting several young men and women at my tea stand to help them launch and promote their new businesses. Christian from Sucre par C Macarons, Quaranbling, Bumble Bee Brownies by Sharlotte — I feel extremely fulfilled when I know my hard work and determination is showing other young entrepreneurs that their dreams are possible.
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How have your goals evolved since you first started?
AS: This is an interesting question. People often ask if I want to get my teas in large chains or franchise and have multiple locations. The answer is no. I want to grow, of course, but I do not have any intentions or aspirations of becoming a huge tea conglomerate. The shop is so very personal to me and a big part of the charm is having me and my family behind the register. When you get too big, you lose that warmth.
What are the best and hardest parts about working for yourself?
AS: The best parts and the hardest parts are often the same. Making your own decisions, schedule, etc.
Does being a woman affect how you do business or the way people do business with Abbi's Teas? If so, how?
AS: Well, sure it does, but I don't let that define me. I think because I am young and a woman, people tend to take me a bit less seriously at first. Often after they get to know me, they see me for who I am, but sure, it impacts me.
One time (this is one of my favorite stories) I decided to close the shop early because we were slow and it was the week of the Fourth of July. It might have even been on the Fourth of July. I was pulling in the patio and had already turned the lights out inside and a lady came up and asked if I was closing early. I explained to her that we hadn't had a customer in a few hours and on such a pretty day that I had decided to go over to a friends house to swim. The lady said to me, "Well, what would Abbi think of that?" in that condescending way some people talk to "young, lazy people." So, I said, "I think she'd be just fine with it!" She didn't really like that answer, and I didn't really mind losing her sale that day.
People might underestimate me because I am young and a woman. I am a "dreaded millennial." But, I work hard and I am passionate about my shop, and I try really hard not to walk around with a chip on my shoulder.
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What do you wish people knew about small business owners?
AS: We think about our business every waking moment. People love to come up with ideas for us and tell us what we should or should not do, but I promise we have already thought of that or there is a reason why we aren't doing it. The amount of unsolicited advice small business owners get is incredible, especially in a year like 2020. Support your small businesses in what they are doing. Encourage them. If you get to be a lucky person that a small business owner confides in, be sure to listen to them, not lecture them.
What advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
AS: Be yourself. Focus on what you do best and don't worry about the copycats; they will come and go. People will see what you do, and if it is successful, they will try to take a piece of the pie for themselves. Let them. Just keep creating, innovating and moving forward. Find other creative people around you that you can laugh with and cry with, too. 2020 has really shown me the importance of having a small, tight group of fellow creatives to just be human with on a day-to-day basis. Looking at you, Bang-up Betty!
Abbi's Teas & Things is located at 2622 Kavanaugh Blvd. in Little Rock and is currently offering curbside pickup and online shopping. Learn more on the shop's website and follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.