Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Cullen Fan, Founder of West China Tea, located in Austin, TX, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
West China Tea is essentially an immense passion project to share Chinese tea culture with the world and to build community through that. We are known for being one of the premier sources of unique, artisan, and farm-direct Chinese tea and tea ware in the United States, as a reliable source for tea culture education through our YouTube channel Tea House Ghost and our online classes, and our dedication to the craft and artistry of tea. We are distinguished from most American tea houses and tea companies in that we do our own direct sourcing of tea from the farmers and tea masters who produce it - many American tea companies buy imported tea and repackage it. Direct sourcing requires years of building connections and credibility in China and, of course, fluency in the Chinese language.
We differ from most Chinese tea houses in that we combine aspects of American culture with the ancient practice of tea. We have dance parties where tea is served instead of alcohol, live music performances, poetry readings, podcasts, tea and chocolate pairings with house-made chocolates, and many more unique events that are not to be found in a typical Chinese tea house.
We take pride in representing dozens of different farmers and artisans in China by sharing their work and their stories. We strive to maintain a high level of quality and consistency in everything we do and in holding inclusive, diverse spaces for community and discourse. Chinese tea culture is extremely deep - comparable to wine, coffee, whiskey, or cigars - and it can be quite intimidating to the uninitiated. Our platform is designed to provide a gentle introduction for those who are completely new to Chinese tea, as well as to hold space for them to experience the depths of the culture beyond what they would be able to without traveling to China themselves.
People often assume that our customers are Chinese-descended or Asian-descended people, but this is far from the truth. While some of our clientele do have Chinese or Asian heritage, they are no more represented in the tea house than they are in the general population. Our customers come from all backgrounds and all walks of life - in addition to enthusiasts of Chinese tea, which is a fair niche hobby, the community is made up of many people who just want to have a place to socialize, connect, and hang out. This is a very diverse group, including people of all different ethnicities, sexuality, gender identities, ages, occupations, etc.
Tell us about yourself
My name is So-Han Fan, and I'm the founder of West China Tea. As a first-generation Chinese-American in Houston, Texas, I grew up drinking tea. On weekends we would go eat Dim Sum, one of my few connections with my Chinese heritage growing up. Dim Sum is to tea what tapas is to wine - the whole cuisine is based on small dishes that pair well with Chinese tea. My favorite tea on these excursions was a blend of pu'er and white chrysanthemum called Guk Bo.
My experiences with Chinese tea were limited to these restaurant experiences until I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, where I majored in Marine Biology. There I was introduced to the art of Gong Fu Cha, the traditional Chinese tea service, at a small tea shop called Chaikhana. I was immediately captivated by the simplicity and elegance of the ritual, the beauty of the handmade tools, the intoxicating taste and aroma of the teas, and the opportunity to connect with my Chinese heritage and share it with my friends.
I bought my first tea set and began a regular tea practice sharing tea with my housemates. When our friends and classmates would come to visit our house, we would serve them tea, and soon tea gatherings were a regular occurrence. We were all too young to buy alcohol, and by the time we were old enough, all the social space that a normal college student fills with alcohol was filled with tea. In 2003 I started teaching tea classes through the Free School, a local organization, beginning my public tea service career.
I moved back to Texas - Austin - in 2008. I got my first tea-serving job in 2009 at the now-defunct Jade Leaves Tea House, acting as their tea program manager and introducing gong fu cha to their tea program. It was here I really found my voice as a tea server. Unlike Santa Cruz, Chinese tea culture and gong fu cha were completely new to Austin, and I found it very thrilling to introduce this practice to a new community. It was during this time that I developed the connections that would later form the foundations of the Austin tea community.
In 2010 I got an internship doing Freshwater Environmental Research in China with the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. On my first day in my new office, I went to the break room, where there was a tin of local green tea. I made some in a paper cup, and it was the best green tea I'd ever had - even after seven years (by that point) of trying the best teas I could afford. I asked my coworkers what it was, and they told me it was just ordinary tea - nothing special, not what they'd serve to guests, just what they drink every day. The big difference between this tea and what I'd tried before is that I was trying, for the first time, farm-direct tea that was grown cleanly.
Over the next ~ three years, I would travel across Southwestern China whenever I had free time and explore the ancient tea mountains. During that time, I met and became friends with multiple tea farmers in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi. The teas that I tried with them were orders of magnitude better than anything I'd tried in all my years of tasting and sharing teas in the United States.
When I returned to Texas in late 2012, I brought a small amount of this farm-direct tea with me. I shared it with my tea friends from the Jade Leaves days, and soon we drank it all. I decided to just order more from my tea farmer connections instead of paying for imported tea from an American tea shop. My Austin friends wanted to throw down on order to get some as well, and together we ponied up about $700 to place an order. I had the farmers ship the tea to my old housemate in Chengdu, and he consolidated it and forwarded it to Austin. The tea made it as far as Oakland before it was sent back to China - apparently, you can't just ship tea from China to the United States because it's an agricultural product regulated by the FDA.
At the time, I was employed as a medical researcher and didn't have much time to navigate the complicated FDA registration process, so it took me about eight months to figure out how to get that one box back to Texas. In the process, I had to start a business because only businesses have the right to register an FDA food handling facility. I filed a DBA as West China Tea Company, which was both a reference to the East India Company, which was the first to import tea to the West, and the fact that all of my tea (at the time) came from Western China.
I eventually managed to get the box and the tea inside it and mostly just enjoyed it with my friends until about four months later, when the medical consultancy I worked for went out of business, and I found myself unemployed. Reasoning that I had already done the initial footwork for acquiring tea and a business license, I pivoted to become a tea merchant. Initially, I just rented a small room in my friend Emily's house/jewelry studio and set up shop. Back then - 2013 - Austin wasn't really familiar with Gong Fu Cha or Chinese tea, so I just served it for free every Tuesday and Friday. People would tip me or buy tea, and eventually, we had the beginnings of a vibrant tea community. During this time, I also served at different events: art openings, concerts, music festivals, private parties, raves, farmers' markets, etc.
In 2014 the community outgrew the room in Emily's house, and we opened our first real tea house in a 200-square-foot room under a tattoo parlor, behind a bar. This was called The Tea Spot, and we didn't have a sign - you had to know we were there and knock on the door to get in, and our business was completely word-of-mouth.
Over the next three years, our community grew so much that we had to turn people away from our tea tastings. The Tea Spot quickly became "cuddling room only," as we called it, with people sitting on each other's laps because there wasn't anywhere else to sit. In 2017 we moved to our current location, a 3,000+ square foot building with multiple rooms for both large events and intimate tea tastings.
In 2020, immediately after signing a 3-year lease on our space, we were nearly put out of business by the Covid-19 pandemic. We were forced to pivot our business to include e-commerce, an immense undertaking that involves not only building a website but producing hundreds of product pages and building out a digital marketing department and fulfillment team. We were only able to survive the pandemic with the help of the community, raising more than $10,000 through GoFundMe to keep us in business.
Now, as we enter our tenth year in business, we are Austin's only Asian-owned tea house and one of the country's premier sources of farm-direct Chinese tea and artisan tea ware. Our tea has been featured on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and we have a vibrant community both online and in Austin. We hope to continue to follow our passion for sharing Chinese tea culture with the world.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
In the summer of 2021, one of our closest tea farmers, Li Shulin, lost his home, tea processing equipment, car, and 20 years' worth of savings in the form of aged Pu'er tea to a fire. Li has been one of my closest friends for over a decade and one of our main tea sources. He has always supported us by offering us very favorable pricing on extremely high-quality tea, as well as extending large amounts of credit to us over the years. After the fire, his entire livelihood and career were in jeopardy. We were able to start a GoFundMe and raise more than $20,000 for him to get back on his feet. Without his support and trust in us through the years, there would be no West China Tea. Being able to return the favor and support him in his time of need is undoubtedly my greatest accomplishment as a business owner.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
American society is extremely hostile to small businesses. The way that laws and policies are written strongly favors large corporations, landlords, and chain businesses. Trying to pay employees a living wage in a world where the cost of living is skyrocketing while being able to keep the doors open and the lights on is a major challenge, and of course, being forced to make the ethical choice to close during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major obstacle to growth and a huge burden on our financial stability.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Number one, lean into your passions, and don't be afraid to do something that nobody else is doing. Don't compromise doing what you're passionate about to make it "work."
Number two, be consistent, persistent, and never give up. If you persist along the path of doing what you believe in, you will eventually succeed. The only way to fail is to quit trying.
Number three, be scrupulous and fair in managing people. Your company is only as good as your team, and your team is only as good as your relationship with the team members is, and their relationship with each other. Always say please and thank you, never blame someone for something that isn't their fault, and don't expect someone to do a job that you haven't trained them to do.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
For me, entrepreneurship isn't about getting the money; it's about sharing what you love in a way that is sustainable and impactful. That's not to say people can't succeed motivated by anything more than a desire for success - I don't know about that path. What I know about is taking something that you are passionate about and orienting your life, your effort, and your productivity around that. The sheer amount of effort that we give to the endeavors we call "work" is enough to move mountains. We only have this one life to live, and we may as well spend that effort in pursuit of something we truly believe in.
Where can people find you and your business?
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