When Precious Jones was a girl visiting her grandmother in Trenton, New Jersey, she was responsible for tasks like watering the garden or drying out the herbs. Her grandmother was a midwife, but she also cared and tended for her garden.
Little did Jones know the wisdom of her grandmother would fuel her entrepreneurial spirit and help Jones start her own company, MEplusTEA.
“We didn’t get the full recipes but we got what herb goes with what and what herb does what,” Jones said. “It kinda helped me put some stuff together.”
MEplusTEA is a small business specializing in cultural teas. Jones now spends the majority of her time making hand-blended, loose-leaf tea for consumers.
Small businesses are identified as those with fewer than 500 employees, according to the United States Small Businesses Administration Office of Advocacy. And even though small businesses make up 99.6% of Georgia businesses, according to national data, only a little over half survive for five years.
Even so, small businesses fuel the U.S. economy, as firms with fewer than 500 employees employ 46.8% of private sector payrolls in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau of Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs.
For Jason Dean of Figment Kombucha, a kombucha manufacturer, he couldn’t have imagined owning a small business, let alone having one in Athens, Georgia.
Dean, a graphic designer, grew up in Ohio and lived there until he was 27. He moved to Florida as his wife was earning her master’s at Florida Institute of Technology and the pair remained in Florida for about 10 years before moving to Watkinsville, Georgia. Six years ago, as Dean put it, he grew bored with the “corporate-structured world.”
“[I] decided I wanted to make something and actually be involved with making something with my hands every day,” Dean said.
Dean’s love of cooking stemmed from his childhood and as he grew older, he enjoyed and wanted to learn more about brewing. He landed a job at Five Points Bottle Shop with a goal to learn the industry, brew beer and become a brewer. However, Dean got wind of the kombucha concept and was sold.
“I started learning more and more about kombucha and other fermented processes and foods and decided to try the kombucha thing because there’s nothing locally as far as kombucha brewers go,” Dean said. “I was kind of surprised because there seems to be a really good market for it.”
Kombucha, a fermented tea drink, is the name of the game.
Dean said he tries to describe it as “lemonade with a little bit of fruit flavor” to prepare customers for the sour taste. Kombucha’s three basic ingredients are yeast, sugar and tea (usually black tea) and has been around for thousands of years, according to WebMD.
Although Dean dove into the kombucha scene after spending much of his time studying and working toward graphic design, he’s not alone in his entrepreneurial endeavors.
Fritz Gibson, owner of Half-Shepherd Market & Cheese Shop, said having a specialty cheese shop wasn’t on his radar at all.
“I kind of fell into a job as a cheese buyer … about 20 years ago,” Gibson said.
Gibson left his hometown of Athens to go to culinary school in Vermont, where he said there were many “amazing cheesemakers.” He later moved to Chicago and got a job at a specialty food store that just happened to be a cheese shop.
“I just kept ending up working with cheese even though it wasn’t necessarily my focus,” Gibson said. “I got to visit cheese shops all over the country so I set out to open a specialty food store neighborhood grocery, but I knew I wanted cheese to kind of be the focal point.”
A lifelong investment
Other Athens business owners, like Sam Johnson of Bear Hug Honey, knew he would end up in the business.
Johnson moved to Athens for college in 2001 and graduated from the University of Georgia with an agriculture economics degree before moving to North Carolina. When he moved back to Athens two years ago, he began his honey and retail shop.
“I was always interested in local agriculture and … started volunteering at farmers markets right after college and got involved with honey and bees that way … and then just kind of fell in love with it,” Johnson said. “[I] dove into it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“[I] decided I wanted to make something and actually be involved with making something with my hands every day.”
— Jason Dean, Figment Kombucha
Similarly, Peter Dale of Condor Chocolates was already involved in the Athens food scene — with staples like The National and Seabear Oyster Bar — so opening an artisan chocolate shop wasn’t too unexpected for him.
In fact, the impetus for doing the business was Dale’s frequent trips to Ecuador, the country where his parents met and fell in love.
After returning from one of his trips to Ecuador, Dale said he wanted to bring back the flavors of Ecuadorian cacao but wasn’t able to find any, so he decided to start making his own back in Athens.
“I felt like there was a place in the market for that,” Dale said. “And Ecuador’s always had great cacao — they just weren’t making [chocolate from Ecuadorian cacao] in Ecuador.”
Regardless of reason, all five business owners said it was a lot of work. Some of the most common challenges for small businesses include taxes and regulations, global competition and the price and availability of health insurance, the SBA reported.
Dean said the biggest challenge as a small business owner is not having many employees to rely on. He said he essentially does everything with his business partner, from opening the shop in the morning, to brewing kombucha, to designing the website, to selling product and sweeping the floors.
“It’s 24/7 — you never stop,” Dean said. “You have to understand that going in because if you're not prepared to put in the hours and just be ready to make this your life, don’t do it. You just better be ready to be on your feet for a long day, every single day.”
Johnson cited similar challenges. He offers Bear Hug Honey’s products at farmers markets and craft fairs in addition to wholesale.
“The biggest challenge is trying to be three places at once,” Johnson said.
Jones said the nice thing about owning MEplusTEA now is that her children are older
“So it’s not so much as me sacrificing family time,” Jones said. “Mainly now, my sacrifice is the finances. My husband is really carrying the load.”
Some challenges small business owners face are specific to the area of industry. For example, Gibson said he faces more challenges in the summer months due to the heat of the South.
“Being in Chicago, it’s really easy to get pretty much anything,” Gibson said. “So I have a limited number of distributors I can source from and … in June or July, it’s really hard to ship things like cheese to the South.”
Dale’s Condor Chocolates is an artisan chocolate shop and Dale said it’s very seasonal, so that can pose a challenge.
“We have really big Decembers and really big Februarys,” Dale said. “When we opened, we didn't have gelato and milkshakes. That was something that we added in the summer because we realized that people didn’t want hot cocoa in July.”
Despite the difficulties of owning small businesses, every small business owner has something that keeps them going. For Jones, it’s the fact that her son wants to be an entrepreneur.
“That’s what I’ve pretty much done all my life, so he definitely keeps me motivated,” Jones said.
For Dean, it’s the creative process.
“Coming up with new flavors… it’s a lot like it’s a lot like a blend between brewing and cooking,” Dean said. “There’s the scientific aspects and the procedural things that are more like brewing, and then there’s the creativity and combining flavors that go well together.”
Regardless of their motivation, these locals all have goals for their small businesses — short and long-term.
Although MEplusTEA relies on online sales and doesn’t have a physical shop, due to the legalities and expenses behind having a commercial kitchen. Instead, Jones said she aims to have a tea truck.
“That’s what I’m working for,” Jones said. “Just to have a little tea truck, roll up, set up some tables, have a gathering spot, pack it up and go home. That’s the whole concept down the road.”
Longing for a legacy
Johnson said his future goal for Bear Hug Honey would be to “hopefully still be here.”
“It would be great if we had another [shop] in another fun city,” Johnson said. “But right now, I’m just happy to be in Athens and love being downtown, so we can be here in five years and our wholesale will hopefully grow.”
Dean said the growth of a business happens naturally, so his primary goal is to improve the actual product.
“I think [the kombucha is] already really good but hopefully we can continue to learn and just make it better and better and better,” Dean said.
Dean also aims to source more locally for ingredients.
“We’d like to also really expand the number of farms that we’re getting our products from and in five years, I would hope — other than the tea itself, which can't really be grown in Georgia — that we’re using 100% local ingredients and employing a lot of farmers and really just growing that portion of our business,” Dean said.
Aside from kombucha, Dean said it’s also a goal of his to expand into other fermented foods.
“I'd really like to potentially have our own kind of farm space and just really have a phenomenal product and expand into fermented foods as well,” Dean said. “We're hoping to do kraut and kimchi and lots of things that I don’t think people have heard of yet.”
Dean is confident that in a couple years, customers will begin to slowly except new foods and “strange things.”
“The grocery aisles are going to have a lot more fermented foods than it does now and people are going to be a little more conscious of living cultured foods and how important they are,” Dean said. “Our job is just to continue to educate people about that. The stuff is great and it makes you feel good and you should try it.”
Regardless, small business owners like Jones, Dean, Dale, Gibson and Johnson have their own ways of making sure business goes well.
For some, like Jones’ MEplusTEA, it’s “keeping it interesting.”
“People get used to the products offered so I always have to change it up — just keeping it different, keeping it interesting,” Jones said. “And just set myself apart from an everyday coffee shop or grocery store tea.”
Johnson aims to make Bear Hug Honey as educational as possible and as interactive as possible to reel customers in.
“Our honey bar … makes it more of an experience than just a shop,” Johnson said. “We try to have a variety from all over the world, as well as local, so people can try different ones and then we can explain how they can vary just based on the flower and make it as educational, as interactive and as high quality as possible.”
Dean said for him, the most important thing to keep in mind is knowing the audience.
“Make sure that if you’re only going to offer one thing, make sure it’s something people want,” Dean said. “The one thing that can separate us from other kombucha breweries and other businesses is just how much local product we can use and doing that, we can get much fresher products at the peak of ripeness bottle that and then have it year round.”
Gibson said with specialty food shops, they risk becoming “special occasion” places instead of an everyday store. To combat this, Gibson sells food customers can eat right away in addition to cheese.
“That's why we do lunch,” Gibson said. “[It’s] why we prepare foods and it’s also a great chance for us to show off some products we have in store because in my mind, we call it specialty food, but they’re really everyday things.”
Gibson said people like to refer to shops like his as “fancy” or “gourmet,” but it’s just the way people have been doing it for a long time, he said.
“It’s a lot less fancy than big factories making things with chemicals, in my mind,” Gibson said. “If you find something and you like it, don’t stop. Keep going. There’s always more.”