Written by Jennifer Walker
In 2006, Brandi Barnes Shelton began blending teas for her coworkers. “When I wrapped shows or projects I would give a gift of tea as a ‘remember me’.” In the age of DIY, Martha Stewart, and Real Simple, tea making was nothing more than a fun hobby for Shelton.
It was while traveling abroad that she noticed how often people connected with each other over a cup of tea. Tea is a popular drink worldwide though many communities drink it in their own unique ways. “I wanted to pay homage to those places,” Shelton said, “but also put our own spin and flavor on it.”
All the teas in Just Add Honey’s shop are hand blended personally by Shelton. “Elevated Earl Grey tea with cornflower petals, Moroccan mint uses peppermint and spearmint to give it a nice rounded minty finish,” Shelton mused, “we try and find different ways to create a worldly experience in the comfort of your own home.”
It was in 2008, in the wake of the Obama era recession, that Shelton’s hobby became a full time pursuit. “The company I was working with started moving in a direction where my services weren’t as needed,” Shelton explained, “so I dived into doing my own thing with tea.” When Shelton decided to start a legitimate tea business, she didn’t look for the approval of others. “It was just, ‘this is what I’m doing’,” she said. She has kept that ‘just do it’ attitude and it has served her well.
Though serious about growing her business, Shelton revelled in the enjoyment of the experience, noting that ‘it was fun to do farmers markets and festivals’. Following her marriage, she got a commercial kitchen, hired a sales rep and started doing trade shows. She said the business just evolved organically rather than intentionally.
After spotting a post on social media about the Ascend Atlanta program, Shelton decided to apply. She admitted it had been a while since her last business class: “I thought it would be a great refresher to hone in on where the market was, how to navigate a business climate, and to refresh my knowledge about building a brand.”
Shelton found the lessons of the program, as well as her cohorts, invaluable in growing and changing her company. In fact what she loved most about Ascend was the community. “It’s a little bit of business therapy too because you can meet with other business owners, you can be honest, you can be candid, you can share ideas and thoughts and they’re extremely supportive.”
That sense of community is something she works hard to foster in her tea shop. Just Add Honey’s in-store tea parties had to be cancelled and refunded due to the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. Rather than accept the losses the tea company began offering a ‘Party in a Box’ which has been very successful. Their tea blending classes which used to be offered in store on a monthly basis are now offered free quarterly online. These were challenges she turned into opportunities to pivot and grow.
Shelton isn’t one to shy away from obstacles. She knows that creating a new business isn’t always easy or neat: “Social media has a way of making everything seem perfect and it can make you hesitate to try something,” she says, “ but if you sit on it and try to wait for perfection then you may miss out on an opportunity, and what’s perfect anyway?”
Not only have these innovative solutions helped to offset some of the losses caused by COVID-19, they have created a new experience that customers were waiting for. Like the company itself, the products, events, and offerings have evolved with time. Shelton has streamlined packaging to lower shipping costs and carefully crafted each product. Eventually she arrived at the target, but the first step was to start. “When I made the first box, I didn’t have the right lemon curd jars, and I hand wrote the labels,” Shelton laughed, “looking back I cringe, but the recipient LOVED it.”