Meet Gail Shreeve and Jane Myhill, two local ladies on a mission to bring real tea to UK homes. Lydia Fallon joins them for (what else?) a cuppa to talk elephants, Sri Lanka and how a 30 year friendship turned into the perfect business partnership
Be it a horrendous day at work, an icy winter’s day or a terrible case of the flu, I come from a family who live by the rule that a steaming mug of tea will make everything better. So on meeting two ladies whose job it is to sample tea all day, I was just a tiny bit jealous that I hadn’t come up with this perfect business model myself.
Set up in March 2011, The Kandula Tea Company was the brainchild of Gail Shreeve, 56, and her close friend Jane Myhill, 53, and was grown out of a desire to offer innovative, exciting and, most importantly, delicious tea to households across the country. “We were getting feedback from friends and family that no longer was one tea in the cupboard enough, so we wanted to create a range that suits lots of different tastes, moods and moments. A repertoire for people throughout the day,” Jane, who lives in Wilburton, explains.
I have always been a milk and two sugars kind of girl, so when greeted with a mug of black, sugarless, Kandula English Breakfast Tea, I was a little apprehensive. But the first sip diminished my worries in an instant. Refreshing but full-bodied and sweet, the cup exudes quality and sophistication, a grown-up tea if you will. “A lot of cheaper teas, you have to disguise with milk and sugar and people are quite wary of experimenting without, but with a good quality tea you can do that,” Jane says knowingly.
Each one of the 12 Kandula teas is grown and picked in the lush tea plantations on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, a country which Gail fell in love with on a visit back in 1995, and which has proved paramount to the business. “When I first went over there I felt like it was a country with so much to offer – fabulous beaches, great food, amazing historical sites, but most of all the people are delightful; everything comes with a great big smile,” Gail recalls warmly.
That first visit signalled a lifelong love affair with Sri Lanka, and on one of her many return visits, Gail decided that she wanted to give something back to the country that had provided her with so much joy over the years. “I spend quite a lot of time over in Sri Lanka and had met some super tea blenders,” she explains. “Drinking and sampling the Ceylon teas over there made me realise what quality tea was really like, and I wanted to share that with the UK and beyond.”
After selling a successful refrigerated vehicle company back in 2008, Gail was searching for something new and exciting to get to grips with, a business which combined her love for tea and her passion for Sri Lanka seemed the perfect fit. “I phoned up Jane and made this mad suggestion which she leapt at too, also needing something extra to do and it all started there really.”
“I have a background in graphic design and taking new food and drink products to the market, so an opportunity to design and create my own brand was really exciting for me, having done it for lots of other people over the years,” Jane adds.
Armed with their new idea, the ladies went about building an ethical company that put quality and taste at the forefront. All the teas, which range from refreshing fruit infusions to antioxidant-packed white and green varieties, are premium whole leaf blends and gathered from carefully selected plantations. Gail, who splits her time between Sri Lanka and her home in Norfolk, works closely with the tea producers to oversee the picking and blending, and ensure the collection is completely individual to Kandula. “We really wanted to have a hands on approach,” Gail explains. “I think doing things face to face is important and being able to build a really nice relationship with the tea blenders, they’re like friends now.”
Another important aspect of the business is the elephant. The animal is an integral part of Sri Lankan culture and history, and very sacred to the people there. Both ladies saw this first hand and were inspired to dedicate the Kandula brand to these wonderful creatures. Hot pink elephants adorn the kitsch packaging, the brand name is a famous Sri Lankan elephant and the business supports the work of the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage.
And this rather larger member of the business team seems to be winning over tea-drinkers too. In the two years since its launch, Kandula Tea Company has picked up three prestigious industry awards, is stocked in farm shops, restaurants, spas and food halls across the country, and is gaining a dedicated following of tea-lovers searching for something more than the poor quality brands lining supermarket shelves. “People are really starting to recognise the brand and seek us out now,” says Jane proudly. “We get calls from people all over the place, who say they have gone in somewhere and found our tea,” Gail pipes in. “That’s really rewarding.”
Working together has also proved a real labour of love for the lifelong friends. “We have always worked well together in the kitchen and I think if you can work well in the kitchen, you can probably start a business successfully together too,” Gail laughs.
“Working for ourselves is very rewarding,” Jane adds. “It’s tough but we are learning so much, which is exciting, particularly at our age.
“We are giving ourselves new challenges; every day is a different one.”
It has also proved a very welcome distraction for Jane, who is battling the blood cancer Lymphoma. “I was diagnosed four years ago so my health goes up and down, but Kandula has been fantastic as I can work from home and it has been a lovely thing I can focus on away from the hospital.”
And despite having to battle something that, Gail admits, “they didn’t envisage at the start”, the future looks bright for the entrepreneurs. They already have plans to introduce more teas to the range and hope to secure business from other larger multinational companies, including Harvey Nichols, who have already expressed an interest in the product. “We feel we’re ready for that now, we have a good firm base and know that people are happy with the product,” Gail bubbles excitedly.
But more importantly, they’re determined to enjoy every moment of the journey along the way. “We really wanted to work together and build something that we could grow and that would become part of our lives as appose to a job.
“And that would be a lot of fun too.”
A.A Milne once said: “A proper tea is much nicer than a very nearly tea, which is one you forget about afterwards.” Trust me; you won’t forget a Kandula tea, or the ladies behind it in a hurry.
The Kandula Tea Company are taking part in a tea talk at The Cambridge Folk Museum on May 12. Find out more at www.folkmuseum.org.uk.
You can find out more about The Kandula Tea Company by visiting their website atwww.kandulatea.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @kandulatea and like on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kandulatea.