An Interview with Ms. Gail Gastelu
Gail Gastelu is the owner and publisher of The Tea House Times as well as many other tea-related businesses and websites. She has been connecting businesses and consumers with all facets of the tea industry since 2003. In addition, she has been a member of STI’s Advisory Board since 2015. We wanted to learn a little more about her and share what we learned with you.
STI: Gail - how did you get started in the tea business?
Gail: Like most others in the USA tea industry, I was not born on a tea plantation and therefore do not have the privilege of a lifelong family connection to tea. Rather, I was drawn to it because of the positive aspect of drinking tea. Using tea as a part of any gathering is a healthy thing to do for body and mind, health, wellness, and human connection. For me, coming into the tea industry in 2003 was part of a life re-evaluation and deciding that I'd prefer to be my own boss, do good for others, connect businesses and consumers, and use my strengths for something better.
STI: Why did you decide to combine your love of tea with publishing? Did you have a background in publishing?
Gail: No, I did not have a previous background in publishing. But I knew I possessed the leadership, organizational, and writing skills to form the base of it. The decision to be on the publishing end of the tea industry happened after thorough evaluation and forethought of what makes me happy, what types of things I enjoy doing, and how I could apply those things to help people learn about tea, connect with others, and strengthen their businesses to sustain growth and customer satisfaction.
STI: Can you walk me briefly through your professional and educational background?
Gail: My background is in business and marketing with strengths in information management; in the past I have worked mostly for larger food and beverage corporations. These were fabulous experiences involving amazing connections with sales and marketing teams, new product launches and team rallies, special events, and so many important experiences that have shaped my professional persona.
STI: You’ve created many different aspects to your business, from The Tea House Times to the courses you offer to your directories. How did you develop the broad vision for your business?
Gail: All I knew starting out was that I wanted to help others. This all began through something I was doing to help a local tea room owner. We became friends and she very openly told me about every challenge of running a tea room. I needed and wanted to help solve some of the issues tea rooms were facing....how to buy and source products, services, tea, and everything they needed; how to educate staff and customers; how to better connect with others in business and in the community; marketing skills, promotions, public relations, press and more.
The broader vision was not forethought. I started with The Tea House Times publication and everything else grew out of necessity to help more people solve more problems. My TeaCourse.com online education is not certification but a continuing education program to help people stay in business. TeaCourseFastTrack.com is the gateway to a quick jump-start for people to learn about tea and apply it to their business, particularly if their business is not a 100 percent tea-only focus.
TeaEtiquetteCertified.com is for those who want to go on and teach etiquette to others, less about the leaf and more about the etiquette of tea, business, and dining. The Tea House Times publication and subscriptions in print or digitally along with tea news and weekly eNews fill the need to watch trends but also enjoy every aspect of tea at the same time. THT online directories are an advertising means for some and a resource for others. What the public does not see is 13 years’ worth of product lists and connections to suppliers provided behind the scenes for tearooms doing business with me.
STI: What do you like best about your job?
Gail: This is not something I like to define by the word job. It is a passion. Owning a business means that you work around the clock and that in essence is much more than a job. It is passion that drives and fuels and sustains interest and joy through every minute of every day for me and knowing that something I do to connect one person with another or to help someone discover tea is a nice, healthy break to their day; that makes me happy.
STI: Your position puts you uniquely at the center of the specialty tea industry in the US. What do you think is the most important or exciting trend in the specialty tea business?
Gail: The most important trend is more people embracing tea. More people. More people. More people. It is absolutely no longer just grandma's cuppa. As businesses and consumers discover finer teas and explore them with the same importance and consistency as high quality foods and wine for example, the industry will continue to grow.
I always say that an exquisite meal must end with an exquisite tea (or coffee). It can no longer be considered an afterthought. It must be the final defining moment of the most extraordinary essential act of consuming food for health and pleasure while connecting with others. It took a while to get here, but the coffee industry is welcoming tea now and also understands the importance of educating staff and customers in order to do it right. Restaurants need to do a better job.
STI: How would you describe America’s past and current specialty tea culture? What’s the most significant difference between the two?
Gail: There's not much to say about the past in America. We need to perhaps compare now with the future. The past is most people only knowing generic grocery store teabag tea and only buying it because grandma kept telling them if they don't feel too great, they should drink tea. And that was laden with milk and sugar....extra calories, not so good for you then!!
The specialty tea industry began with passionate people embracing tea in business, learning about the leaf, its processing, discerning quality vs. imperfections, and passing their knowledge on to others by creating and sharing moments together drinking tea and experiencing it in numerous ways. As with any profession for any product, the professionals know the good stuff and consumption starts here. Educating others is the key to growth. The main thing to remember is that all people learn in unique ways including reading, writing, tasting, and exploring through all five senses. Significant change and growth can only be sustained through continual outreach, education, and positive experiences.
STI: There are at least three major drivers in the specialty tea industry today: health, wellness and tea as an ingredient. Do you see a lot of overlap within these areas or do you think they tend to exist as separate silos? Please explain!
Gail: Wow, separate silos for sure. All good but from what I see, very separate. Each industry doing one of these things is doing it in a specialized way known to them. They are doing what they know. Applying tea to what they know. It's great, really, to see tea being incorporated into so many different industries. It can and does go with just about everything in life. I will say, however, what ties every piece together is the similar marketing and messaging they all use exemplifying the healthy aspect and positive image that tea has for all products. I could go on for days on this topic but will leave it at that.
STI: What advice would you give to people just starting to be interested in specialty teas?
Gail: Yes, yes, do it! But do it right. Taste, taste again, taste some more. Know your tea, know the quality, taste and record all teas to ensure consistency. Hold tastings and education sessions with staff so that everyone knows what to communicate with customers because they have experienced it, not just read about it on your menu.
The huge food and beverage corporations I have worked for in the past always knew the importance of menu discovery – all staff from every level from the bottom to the top executive would need to taste new menu items. Some were explored together before becoming a standard menu item and others were explored together as a team as they were introduced as final.
Same goes for a menu of any sort in any business. Perfect it and experience everything with staff so that everyone begins with the same knowledge base and understanding of what your business stands for. Besides that, specialty tea is incredibly special, profitable too since there are many accouterments to be sold alongside for creating just the right experience.
STI: How did you become involved in the Specialty Tea Institute?
Gail: Thank you for asking me this. What a great question. My first involvement was as a volunteer to help at a few STI sessions. You know they allow members to volunteer to help organize tea and hot water during education sessions. For me it was an opportunity to be with people passionate about tea so I raised my hand and schlepped hot water on more than one occasion many years ago.
STI: As a busy and accomplished professional, you could be on countless boards – why STI?
Gail: I actually was and still am involved with many boards. Do you know the saying that some people are in your lives for a reason, for a season, or a lifetime? My involvement on various boards serves all of this. The Reason: to lend a hand or show of support and perhaps endorsement. The Season: where and when I feel my time and energy is best put to use at any given time. The Lifetime: my commitment to all current and past boards whenever they need me or my input officially, unofficially, whether my term is current or expired.
STI: Who do you think is the most interesting person in the world of specialty tea today?
Gail: Peter Goggi! ;-) Is that the right answer?
Seriously, the most interesting person in specialty tea is not a person by name but a person by character. It is that person who embraces tea and brings it to others in their own special, unique way, any way. We are all in this together.
STI: What’s your most memorable experience with tea?
Gail: Memories help to mold our future. Not one of mine is ‘most memorable.’ So I will first answer with my earliest memory of tea: grandma's cuppa teabag tea laden with milk and sugar shared in a charming little child's tea set with my sis.
Fast forward to afternoon tea in London approximately 25 years ago. To afternoon tea experiences with family and friends in the USA. To my foray into the tea industry and the aha moment I experienced at that first STI class where I schlepped the hot water but was given the opportunity to learn and taste at the same time. The moment in time when you discover quality, specialty tea, and those little nuances thanks to terroir add to the time-line of memories and begin to serve a future making each and every experience involving tea most memorable.
STI: What’s your favorite tea and when do you most like to have it?
Gail: My go-to favorite is jasmine pearl green tea. It's my must-have first tea to start the day. I will steep the same leaves at least three times.
STI: Do you have a personal tea ritual?
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