Woman-owned Storehouse Tea Company keeps outgrowing its space

Employing refugees and neighborhood residents, Paula Hershman creates small-batch, sustainable, USDA Organic teas in Cleveland, Ohio. Learn more about this brand.

Dawn Reiss

May 29, 2024

8 Min Read
Woman-owned Storehouse Tea Company keeps outgrowing its space
Storehouse Tea Company

Paula Hershman knows how to make a good cup of organic tea.

It starts with organic ingredients, says Hershman, president and founder of Cleveland’s Storehouse Tea Company, a woman-owned, USDA Organic and Fair Trade Certified tea company.

“It’s really important,” Hershman says. “You can’t wash pesticides out of a leaf. They’re embedded in there. When you put water on it, it’s going to come out in your cup, a cup of pesticides. Do you really want that?”

It’s also essential to know the right temperature to boil tea. Black teas and botanical blends—like an herbal tea—boil around 212° F. White teas, green teas and oolongs should be “below boil,” she says, at 190° F .

Even the time to create a tea makes a difference. Tannins can come out quicker in delicate teas, like a green tea, which should only boil for two to three minutes, or the tea will get bitter, Hershman says. Black teas or a spicy chai tea made with cardamom seed, ginger and black pepper need to boil for five to seven minutes to allow the hearty ingredients to break through.

“The temperature and timing can make or break it,” Hershman says.

When Hershman, 61, started her organic tea company 14 years ago, she didn’t know the first thing about running a business.

“I had no business trying to start a business,” says Hershman, who has a degree in art education and graphic design from the University of Dayton. “I did have the passion and had strong convictions for what I wanted to accomplish. I had a lot of life experience and a desire to do something different with a business that wasn’t a traditional business.”

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She started her business with $350 in the midst of a recession.

“I took it slow,” she says. “Our business crawled along because I didn’t have a lot of cash flow. But it gave me more determination that I wasn’t going to fail at this because I truly had to make something from nothing and figure it out.”

“You’re never going to stay in the game if it’s just about making money. It’s got to have something bigger than just making money. It’s got to mean something. If it means something, it’s going to grow because it’s good.” Paula Hershman, president and founder of Cleveland’s Storehouse Tea Company

Building an organic, mission-minded business

At first, Hershman kept the business as a side hustle.

“I wanted to make sure it was going to work,” Hershman says. “I still had like two, three other jobs I was doing part-time until I could finally show it could make it a profit.”

In the first year, Hershman focused on writing a business plan and doing research. She hosted home tea parties to test market types of teas.

“It took a whole year just to get the organic certification figured out before I could start blending,” says Hershman, who works with Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), as her organic certifier.

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By 2010, she started blending herbal organic teas in a church kitchen in the suburbs of Cleveland. The 10 hand-blended, small-batch loose leaf teas came from local and international farmers who follow sustainable practices, Hershman says.

Today, her business makes 60 loose leaf teas, 13 tea sachets and ice tea pouches, sourced from more than 50 organic ingredients. Packaged in recyclable cardboard, Hershman also uses plant-based, biodegradable, triangular tea sachets.

“If we have a beautiful organic tea, where we're making sure we're sourcing all the ingredients correctly, why would we put it in a plastic bag that could leach plastics? It has to make complete sense,” she says.

Sample packs of Storehouse Tea Company's products

Twice a year, Storehouse Tea Company blends its 13 varieties of tea sachets and then sends the tea to a co-packer to make the sachets. “It’s a big all-hands on deck,” says Hershman, who blends as much as 1,500 pounds of tea in a week. But typically, the team blends about a couple hundred pounds of tea.

Teas come in flavors like blueberry hibiscus white tea, pomegranate green tea and ginger lime rooibos as well as more traditional varieties. Some are blends and some aren’t.

“Some we’re just buying organic, fairtrade, we put it in our bag and then it goes into a labeled box and we’re done,” she says. “Some have eight different ingredients in them, flavorings and are more complex than others.”

Now with more than 60 loose leaf teas, 13 tea sachets and ice tea pouches made from more than 50 ingredients, the business has grown to nearly a half-million dollars in sales each year, Hershman says.

“We grow by at least 20% every year,” she says.


Wholesale, private label and direct-to-consumer offerings

After five years of working in a church kitchen, Hershman made the move from the suburbs to Cleveland in 2015.

“We got too big and too busy,” Hershman says. “I was getting pallets of tea delivered to my driveway and that’s when I was like, ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’” She found space in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood on the west side of the city.

“It’s a pretty cool area of Cleveland, that’s kind of up-and-coming and gentrifying,” she says. “It’s been a very Hispanic neighborhood for 60 or 70 years, and it’s also home to a lot of refugees and recent immigrants to Cleveland because the housing is affordable.”

“It’s perfect,” adds Hershman. “Because we can hire from the neighborhood.” The 1,500-square-foot space includes a certified organic kitchen, but even this space has gotten too small. “We are packed to the gills,” she says. “We have really high ceilings and shelves, but we are in the hallways right now.”

She is trying to find a 5,000 square foot warehouse space for pallets of ingredients, tea sachets and raw ingredients, along with finished products. But most options start at 10,000 square feet.

In addition to its wholesale operations, the company blends private-label offerings for local tea and coffee houses that want a signature blend, as well as Earth and Oak, an online retailer that sells fair-trade teas, artisan spices and ethical coffees.

“Coffeehouses have become such a great asset to our business because a lot of those places have a really nice coffee. They're trying to do a better job than Starbucks, and they have so many different coffee drinks and want to serve a really nice local, organic looseleaf tea,” she says. It’s usually some form of chai tea, like a chai latte or a London Fog with Earl Grey.

During the two months surrounding Cleveland Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show, Storehouse Tea Company makes a private-label organic vanilla bean black tea that’s sold in the Garden’s gift shop. The tie-in: Vanilla comes from an orchid’s seed pod.

Her advice to other entrepreneurs: Don’t make an average product.

“Don’t make it just to make money,” Hershman says. “You’re never going to stay in the game if it’s just about making money. It’s got to have something bigger than just making money. It’s got to mean something. If it means something, it’s going to grow because it’s good.”

Paula Hershman once employed several refugees, but doing so was not good for her business. Now, she employs one Ukrainian refugee.

Working with refugees unexpectedly difficult

When Hershman started her business, one of her goals was hiring refugees.

“You can watch someone doing something and your English language doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s been fairly easy,” she says.

In the past, she worked with resettlement agencies and outreach programs such as Catholic Charities and US Together, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Central Ohio, to hire several part-time employees. Other times, Hershman has found employees who are refugees through a guidance counselor at a nearby international high school. Lately, it’s been word-of-mouth referrals.

It is really hard sometimes, Hershman says because a lot of times it’s a first job for many refugees.

“You are working with a lot of fragile people who are disconnected and you’re trying to be uplifting,” she says. “It’s an intense position to be put into or undertake.”

Other issues, like having reliable transportation, have been a huge hinderance. “People were riding the bus an hour just to get here. In the winter, it’s an hour and a half. That’s impossible. People who do that don’t last. No one would do that for a job,” Hershman says.

While the tea industry makes it easier for some jobs like packing bags or labeling websites, Hershman has shifted away from hiring multiple refugees, especially for positions in blending teas that are USDA Organic or bookkeeping.

“I used to hire anyone who walked through the door, because of my bleeding heart,” she says. “But it didn’t make business sense at all. I had to really step back and say ‘Am I trying to make money here or am I non-profit?’”

Now she’s more selective with hiring and works with a single refugee from Ukraine. Sponsored by a family through a church, the mom of two has access to a car and childcare. “She learned how to drive and got her license,” Hershman says. “The family only has one car so she and her husband share it, or she uses her host family’s car.”

That makes all the difference, Hershman says.

“I learned a lot of hard lessons,” Hershman says. “Because I had to be a business person and not a social worker.”

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About the Author(s)

Dawn Reiss

Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for TIME, The New York Times, The Atlantic, AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Civil Eats, Fortune.com, U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, among others. Find her at www.dawnreiss.com.

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