Lynyrd Skynyrd, an epiphany in a hospital waiting room and gin & tonic tea! Karen Alexander tells me about her Freebird journey so far.
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Now I must confess, I’m much more into my coffee than my tea. But perhaps I’ve just never tried the right tea? (That and possibly the wonderful caffeine dependency that comes with being a parent). But I recently tried Freebird Tea for the first time and I think I’ve finally discovered a tea I enjoy drinking and love the taste of.
My previous experience of flavoured or herbal teas (mostly supermarket bought) wasn’t enjoyment but more of a tolerance when drinking it, because it was ‘good for you’. The health claims of such teas are well known but I’m definitely one for flavour as much as the health benefits.
An introduction to Freebird Tea
I was kindly given a tin of Caribbean Winter by Karen Alexander from Freebird who I met at a recent event. A gorgeously spicy little tea I immediately wanted to try some more flavours, of which there are many. I also wanted to know a bit more about Freebird Tea, and what drove Karen to leave her full time job and start up what is now her own very successful business.
Tell us a bit about Freebird...
"Freebird is a Loose Leaf Tea company based in Lisburn and launched in 2016 by myself and two friends. To be honest we all had a pretty bad impression of tea until we realised we were just drinking 'bad' tea - so we made it our mission to source the best tea in the world and blend amazing flavours together. Our brand is current and fresh which we hope injects new life into the age old practice of brewing tea but is still absolutely uncompromising on quality and taste.
The name 'Freebird' is really attributed to one of my business partners. We all totally believe in being free - living free - not held back by anything but living as full a life as we can. Unfortunately that is not always the case for people. Life is tough. Some people are trapped in circumstances that cage them, whether that's financial, relational, poor choices made in the past or they find themselves in a place so horrific it's hard to even put into words. So right from the beginning we decided that we wanted to help 'free' those people by donating profits from the business to charities. Plus, my business partner also likes the Lynyrd Skynyrd Song, 'Freebird', and sang it relentlessly for the first few weeks!
Our customers include The Merchant Hotel, Bert's Jazz Bar, The Bullitt Hotel, Town Square, Homebird, Hollywood, Owl & Pussycat, Hillsborough and Blend & Batch in Banbridge as well as a number of other high end coffee shops around Northern Ireland and Dundalk. Our most recent customer is the stunning Finn Lough Resort in Enniskillen which we are just about to launch in. It's such a beautiful location and will be the perfect setting to sip on a Freebird brew.
We also have a subscription service that people can sign up to via our website, www.freebird.ventures. There you can choose the number of blends that suits your needs, the flavours you want, or simply pick the 'surprise' me option and we'll choose you one of our quality blends and post it right to your door".
You left a pretty secure job to start the business. Can you tell us a bit about that, and why tea?
"Yea I previously worked in finance within the Health Service, which I guess in the eyes of many people seems like a secure job. I had so many people tell me I was mad for moving on from a permanent, safe job, to basically nothing more than an idea and enthusiasm. I guess for me personally my epiphany happened when I had to have a routine check at the hospital. I was waiting in X-ray and across the waiting room was a man sitting in a wheelchair. He was in his early 50s and was nothing more than skin and bones but it was the look in his eyes that caught my attention. He was just done. Life, it seemed, was hard for him and he had had enough. I wanted to tell him to lift his head, that it wasn't over. For me that was the moment that safe jobs, pensions, and the 9-5 just wasn't worth it. I didn't want to get to the end of my life and wonder .. 'what if'.
We were introduced to the idea of tea by a friend and when we looked into it we realised that tea - good quality leaf tea - was on the rise. In the same way you would no longer be satisfied with rubbish coffee, people were beginning to realise there was so much more to tea than just your mum's 15 tea bags in a pot brew! That coupled with the amount of research that show the proven health benefits tea has made it a no brainer really".
What practical advice would you give anyone looking to do the same?
"It's tough for sure. People had told us the first three years of business would be really difficult, but we thought we'd nail it! How naive we were! But even when it's been hard and we've been working long hours and trying to balance cash flow it's been unbelievably worth it. To know that we have taken an idea, produced a product and brand which people love and that has a standard of quality that the most prestigious hotel in Belfast serves it - no safe 9-5 could ever touch that. So go for it. Dream big. Get as much advice and help as you can and give it your best shot! You might fail .... but you also might succeed. What you'll not do is look back at your life and wonder, 'what if'".
There are many claims about the health benefits of herbal/flavoured teas. How can Freebird benefit those who drink it?
"The great thing about tea is the amount of research there has been and is available about it's health benefits. Every type of tea, including black tea, carries some health benefits ranging from improving the condition of your skin to helping to prevent cardiovascular issues and cancer. We have a Teatox range in which we've handpicked certain teas and herbs known for particular health benefits, for example Lemongrass which is a great anti-inflammortory and antioxidant and Peppermint which is amazing for aiding digestion. Everything that is included in our Teatox range is there for a specific reason and the feedback we've received on it has been amazing".
And you seem to have social responsibility as one of you key values?
"Our world is beautiful, as are the people who live in it, so as a company it is really important that our tea is ethically sourced. All our tea is sourced from suppliers who are part of the Ethical Tea Partnership. We want to ensure that the people who are right at the beginning of the supply chain are looked after and treated well. There is no point of us aiming to help 'free' people by supporting charities etc if we don't care about the ones who have carefully picked and dried our leaves, so we are very grateful that we can work alongside the Ethical Tea partnership".
What flavours are your personal favourites?
"There are so many really great blends its difficult to choose, but if I had to pick I'd say Mint Chocolate Rooibos. It really is like an after eight in a mug, and totally caffeine free so makes an amazing after dinner drink. It's closely followed by Strawberry & Spears green tea which has all the health benefits of green tea but none of the taste! It's a really refreshing brew and perfect for a summer’s day!".
And are there any new ones on the way?
"We are always coming up with new blends and have a few we are launching for the summer including a Gin and Tonic blend and possibly a Mojito blend which I'm working on at the moment".
What's been your proudest/biggest moment for the business so far?
"Receiving an email from the executive chef at The Merchant the day after our tasting to say they'd held a number of International tea tastings over the previous few weeks but our quality of blends surpassed them all! That felt really good. We knew we had a great product, but to hear that other people recognised the quality made all the hard work worthwhile.
We are also proud of being finalists in The Institute of Hospitality 2018 Awards for Supplier of the Year which is just amazing! To be such a young company it's stunning that we were even nominated let alone shortlisted as finalists. It's such an honour, and we're so grateful to our customers who have supported us".
And what are the big plans for the business in the coming months/year
"To keep getting our brand out there. We've just moved into new premises and are about to hire a full-time sales rep which will release us a little to concentrate on innovation and growth. We always want to keep things fresh and do things the best that we can. It's an exciting time for us and we are enjoying the journey!".
A huge Thank you to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions. For more info on Freebird and to order some for yourself, visit their website at www.freebird.ventures.
“I grew up and live in Belfast, Northern Ireland. On my blog, I share with you my huge passion for Northern Ireland food and drink, along with the odd ramble about anything else that happened to come to mind!”