For centuries, this herbal brew made from a dried tropical flower was little known outside of South-East Asia. It’s now the top offering by an Emirati start-up attempting to tap the fast-growing market for beverages in the Gulf.
The so-called blue tea, which is known for its intense colour – it turns purple when a drop of lemon is added to it – is strained from the butterfly pea flower. The Dubai-based start-up Feel Good Tea sources it from China to sell it in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries and is sold in loose form. It can also be customised by adding more flavours on request – a key differentiator for the start-up in a market dominated by packaged tea.
“It is all really about quality and experience,” says Mohammad Al Hawari, founder of Feel Good Tea. “The act of handling loose tea allows customers to touch, see and smell the leaves ... the ritual of brewing the perfect cup can be both relaxing and contemplative,” he adds.
Founded in 2019, Feel Good Tea is tapping into a burgeoning market for the beverage in the region. The market for tea in the Middle East is expected to grow to about $8.2 billion in retail prices by 2025, up from $3.33bn in 2015, according to a recent report by analytics firm Research and Markets.
The tea market has evolved dramatically in the past few years in line with consumers’ changing behaviour, according to the Research and Markets report. Tea drinkers today are more interested in high-quality products and drinks that give them specific health benefits, which has driven demand for healthy green, functional botanical tea and herbal blends, it added.
“Consumers are increasingly looking for curated choices and experiences,” says Sandeep Ganediwalla, Indian research company Redseer’s managing partner in the region.
“We expect to see a lot of local brands create offerings to cater to the regional taste. The emergence of online channels has meant that they can test these products nimbly and reach directly to consumers.”
At Feel Good Tea, Mr Al Hawari says he personally selects each of the company’s blends from seasonal rotations before they are pressed into what he describes as tea pods – glass tubes that keep the tea fresh. He picks them for their unique flavours and health benefits.
Besides the selection of tea, which includes the more traditional options, the company – which now has more than 80 items in its product range – also sells accessories such as teapots, infusers, cups and mugs.
The brand was born on social media, says Mr Al Hawari, and grew exponentially as people began to increasingly shop online early last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Feel Good Tea generated Dh4.6 million ($1.25m) in revenue in February 2020 to January 2021 period, according to Mr Al Hawari.
He is hoping for another bumper year as the company grows its product range and reaches out to more customers.
For that, Mr Al Hawari says the company will need more cash. He started Feel Good Tea with about Dh1.5m of his own money but now plans to raise about Dh3.3m in the first quarter of next year through crowd funding. The founder eventually wants to take the company public.
“For sure we have plans for listing the company, this is the ultimate goal for the future,” Mr Al Hawari says. “In the meantime, we are focused on crowd funding and venture capital.”
But the risks, as for any start-up, remain high. For every success story, there are scores of ideas that fail for multiple reasons: from getting the product and pricing wrong to not having the right people to help scale up the business. Finding funding remains a constant challenge, especially as the company grows.
Mr Al Hawari understands the risks that come with any new business. He started Feel Good Tea after losing a high-paying job in the corporate world. The incident left him depressed and he spent months in therapy. During this time, he found comfort binge-watching Netflix while sipping on warm mugs of tea – a joy that he says led him to dig deeper into the business of tea, and eventually start one of his own.
“When I drink tea, I always feel good. I didn’t want to complicate it and so named my company Feel Good Tea – pure, simple and straight to the point,” he says.
The executive-turned-entrepreneur says that Feel Good Tea aims to fill a market gap for an Emirati e-commerce business selling branded specialty tea. He spends long hours researching for products and has travelled the world to find premium ingredients.
Having started Feel Good Tea from the basement of his house, Mr Al Hawari continues to run the company’s operations from there, with 22 employees.
He says he was inspired by the founder of Australian company SkinnyMe Tea, which, Mr Al Hawari notes, focuses mainly on detox tea. He is counting on his more than 18 years of experience in investment management, banking and insurance to grow his business.
“Tea is so broad. There are thousands and thousands of varieties of tea – black, green, oolong, herbal. The list is endless. We want to focus on not just flavoured teas but also functional teas,” he says, adding that the company has already started testing various types of functional teas such as detox, calming, sleep and beauty.
To drive that growth, the company is now looking beyond just online sales, Mr Al Hawari says. “We need to expand quickly. You need to be online and offline to make it successful.”
As people return to malls and restaurants, online sales have dipped from their peak, Mr Al Hawari says. The company can no longer just depend on online sales, he adds.
“We have plans to open physical stores but we want to go the extra mile. We don’t want to just have a tea shop. We also want to have a tea bar, where you can taste different types of teas, for a price.”
Feel Good Tea is right now working on designing its first store, which it plans to open in one of the malls in Dubai sometime next year, Mr Al Hawari says, without divulging details.
Meanwhile, it is also in talks to display its tea products in cafes and restaurants across Dubai to build awareness about its brand.
Feel Good Tea has developed a corporate package for gifting, a side of the business that has seen strong growth delivering personalised boxes to companies across all sectors, the founder says.
Mr Al Hawari says his company is trying to peg itself as the Patchi or Bateel of the tea market. Both those brands are quite popular in the region and Feel Good Tea is following a similar strategy – putting a variety of teas in a nice package that you can customise and personalise.
The company sells its loose tea in test tubes, packaged in a box. Its offering starts at Dh52 for a box of five tea types to Dh269 for a box of 18 tea tubes. Its most exotic offering, the blue tea – called the Blue Ocean – sells at Dh130 for 100 grams.
Mr Al Hawari’s personal favourite is: “Mango Cranberry Fruit Punch tea brewed using the Feel Good Tea Monroe Glass Cup infuser.”
Q&A with Mohammad Al Hawari, chief executive and founder of The Feel Good Tea
How did the pandemic impact your business?
A: We started online sales in December 2019 and once the pandemic hit in March 2020, we had extremely strong sales due to the surge in online shopping globally. Given we are purely an online company, we have had huge success during the pandemic.
If you had a chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
A: Rather than depending on my own source of funds, I would have scaled the company much faster by raising money through angel investors or venture capital companies. That should be the only factor to revise in my initial plan.
Where do you see the company in five years?
We see ourselves as one of the top and well-known tea brands in the GCC, offering a variety of tea flavours, blends and tea accessories.
What is the biggest lesson you learnt from setting up Feel Good Tea?
A: Once plans are set, just start. There’s no need to dwell too much on the planning stage as it will only slow your business down. Taking the first step gets the ball rolling. And then you can adjust as the business progresses.
If you could go back and change one thing about your business, what would it be?
A: I would not change a single thing. Maybe we can work on enhancing and improving the product line up, but without testing our products in the market, we would not have the knowledge that we have now about our customers and their demands.
Company: Feel Good Tea
Date started: Inception date September 2019 (Launch date of the website December 2019)
Founder: Mohammad Al Hawari
Sector: E-commerce, F&B
Size: 22 Employees
Initial investment: Dh1.5 million ($400,000)