Brittnee Lau is the owner of The Treehouse Teahouse, a tea company specializing in Hawai‘i grown teas and botanicals. Her passion for tea led her on an entrepreneurial path where she sold high quality teas to her favorite restaurants and hotels. She has worked on tea and wine programs at properties such as The Kahala Hotel & Resort and Oahu Country Club. In 2020 Brittnee fully immersed herself, turning her passion into a full time job by selling tea to consumers online and at markets. Brittnee is also a tea sommelier who is extremely knowledgeable on the various flavors and properties of tea.
She holds a BA in Women Studies and a JD and MBA from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Learn more about what encouraged Brittnee to start The Treehouse Teahouse, how her education has helped her in her career and the valuable lessons she's learned along the way.
What inspired you to start your own business?
I love tea and I love the food and beverage industry. I saw a void in the restaurant industry for quality tea suppliers and service consultants. Many of the tea vendors have no clue about the ins and outs of a restaurant, how they run, or what’s feasible during service. However, these days with COVID, I’ve slowed down our restaurant wholesale channel and focus more on retail and consumer education. I love being able to share the world of tea with anyone who’s interested.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business? The most challenging?
I would say the most rewarding part has been the creative freedom. I just sell what I want to sell and work with farmers/creators I want to collaborate with. The most challenging part has been entering a niche market. Hawai‘i grown teas are still new to the general public, and they are sold at a much higher price point than most teas. I spend a lot of time and effort educating customers before they ever make a purchase - sometimes I’ll have the same person ask me questions on instagram, inquire in person at markets, and then the 5th or 6th time I interact with them they’ll be like “okay you convinced me!” It just takes time.
How has your UH education helped you in your career?
My undergrad major was Women’s Studies, and I always tell people that is my most valuable degree. Because of that coursework I am hypersensitive to the way I market “Made in Hawai‘i” products. I’m very careful to not commodify my culture by using terms that might appeal to foreign buyers just to sell my products. A JD/MBA is good for opening doors to network opportunities more than anything. . . for me at least.
What's something about the tea industry that most people don't know?
Most people I speak to consider tea as a “health drink,” but if you aren’t careful where you’re sourcing from and opt to buy grocery store tea bag tea, chances are you’re drinking a combination of dirt, dust (fannings from full leave tea that gets sifted out), sticks and stems (from machine harvested teas), and lots of heavy metals. People also associate tea with Asia (the birthplace of tea), but most commercial production is exported out of Africa and isn’t fair trade.
Do you have any advice for students and alumni who want to get into this industry?
If you want to get into service consulting or you want to have any type of restaurant presence, you need to put in the sweat equity and go work in a restaurant, even if it’s bussing tables. You need to know the intricacies of service if you want any buyer to take you seriously, and you need to know how those intricacies apply to your niche product. If you want a strong grocery or retail presence, you need to get a job at a grocery store even if it’s bagging groceries. I think a lot of people come out of college with big ideas, a degree, and think “I put in the work to make it happen.” That’s not true though, there’s no substitute for sweat equity and you need to put the work in. When you’re building that foundation you need to have a learning attitude, and you can’t act like any type of work is beneath you.