by Jean-Bernard Hyppolite
Howard James, 63, is the president of Tea Country, a local company that provides gourmet tea and other tea-related products such as tea ware, tea pots, strainers, etc. Tea Country’s tea room is located in East Oak Lane at 6722 Old York Rd. In addition to being a tea shop, Tea Country provides tea catering, fund-raising for churches, schools and other non-profit organizations, as well as internet services. If that weren’t enough, those interested in learning more can take an introductory tea class that Howard will be conducting for Mt. Airy Learning Tree on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at 6722 Old York Rd.
Howard, who is also an East Oak Lane resident, didn’t always use to be the tea maven that he is today. “My background is information technology,” he explained.
“I was assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank in charge of information technology in the banking supervision department.” Early retirement was offered to Howard, so he took advantage of the offer and decided to become an entrepreneur. Howard worked on an MBA project called “The New Venture Project” while at Eastern University in Radnor, in which students select an industry and study it for two years. Howard and his current partner, Richard Miller, selected the beverage industry en route to the world of tea.
“Even more specific than that, it was a niche market, which was the specialty tea industry, which is focused on loose leaf gourmet-type tea, not your Lipton and Bigelow and what’s in the tea bags you buy off the grocery shelf. ”
James and his original partners — Miller, a native of Liberia, and Duane Higginbotham — decided to take the project out of a college classroom and into the real world in 2001. During their first three years of existence they were a full-fledged e-Commerce business. They branched out to East Oak Lane in 2004, and then the Temple University area in 2007. Due in part to the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, they left the Temple location.
“The anchor store that was supposed to come in never showed up,” said James, citing the economy, the unfortunate lack of help from the city and other factors. Though still recovering from the financial loss of that effort, Howard is still hopeful of bringing a retail enterprise to fruition. He looked into possibly opening a tea room in Chestnut Hill but discovered that the rents were prohibitive. “If I was selling diamonds, it’d be a different story, but I’m selling tea,” he said.
Howard is considering opening a tea room in another community with his cousin, Skip Tyree, who owns Avenue Bistro in Mt. Airy. “The tea market is much wider and broader than it use to be,” said Howard. “There are so many varieties of blends that are attracting new audiences.” That said, Howard has met almost every tea room owner in the Philadelphia area, but he has yet to meet another African American who owns a tea room or coffee shop.
Tea Country’s most popular tea is perhaps the herbal infusion of Rooibos, which is very popular because of its health benefits. It has 50% higher antioxidants than green tea. It also doesn’t contain caffeine, unlike white, green, black and oolong teas. “It’s so high in antioxidants, it helps with cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure,” said Howard.
James grew up in North Philadelphia. He has a wife, Karen, a daughter, Keysha, and a son, Trey. Keysha has helped with managing the Temple and East Oak Lane tea room locations. Howard has an associate degree in computer science from Community College of Philadelphia, a bachelor’s degree in systems analysis from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an MBA in management from Eastern University.
For more information regarding Tea Country’s operations, products, how to set up tea tastings and information on tea in general, visit www.TeaCountry.com. For James’ MALT class, call 215-843-6333.