Be careful who you reject. Think of the U.K. publishers who said no to a certain author when she tried to sell them her tale about a boy wizard called Harry. Closer to home, a few design firms should be kicking themselves for not returning calls from Katya Popoff and Olga Lenova after meeting them in person. Could it be because the sisters are only 24 and 21, respectively? But—happy-ending alert—Subplot Design took on the project, and the result is smart packaging that accurately reflects everything, from corporate attitude to actual product, that makes up the Fully Loaded Tea company.
The story of how the pair came to be founders and presidents of their own firm starts in their birthplace, Siberia, where herbal teas were part of daily life for them, says Lenova, recalling how everyone added berries to their regular tea as a vitamin source, especially during winter when temperatures were like Winnipeg’s. “We had never seen green grass in February,” Popoff says, reflecting on the family’s arrival in B.C. 13 years ago, adding that their grandmother, who also lives here now, still loves to pick wild blackberries.
The sisters grew up in East Vancouver and Coquitlam with accountant parents. One year into a UBC science honours program, Popoff dropped out for financial reasons, but she picked up valuable office experience. Lenova did a year in economics and Japanese before joining her sister in forming their own company. Natural entrepreneurs, they brainstormed extensively, considering and rejecting businesses built on organic products in vending machines, folding slippers, computer bags, and temporary-staffing services. Wanting a product that they would be proud to sell, they finally tapped into their own background and, aware that consumers were growing ever more health-conscious, came up with the teas loaded with fruits and berries that they recalled from their childhood.
Bright ideas can founder for lack of funding, but the sisters had an ace up their sleeve—the tiny downtown apartment Popoff had bought at age 19. Selling it provided capital.
“When you’re a start-up company, not a lot of people want to help you,” Lenova says, going on to describe the steps they took to find sources for ingredients, and to pack the pyramid bags that hold blueberries, orange peel, and whole-leaf teas.
Not all the blends they tried rocked. When brewed, one had the oily look of gasoline on a puddle. Checking out their competition told them they’d have to look markedly different to succeed. One sly ploy was calling the company Fully Loaded Tea, a name that both alludes to the real fruits and berries (not flavourings) they use and distinguishes theirs from teas promising warmth, fuzziness, and Zen-like calm.
Each tea package has its own colour scheme. Scarlet hints at the fruit and rose petals in Naked Strawberry Green Tea. Blue is the colour for Bulletproof Currant Fruit Tea, with its cranberries, lingonberries, and black currants. Lifestyle graphics and subversive copy (“Sameness sucks” starts the text on one package) add up to what one U.S. design magazine called a “bad-ass attitude” that draws, they say, not only their young urban target group but boomers as well. Popoff and Lenova believe that packaging prompts the initial purchase. After that, it’s the product, and these are good teas, loaded with flavour, the flower and berry nuances coming through without tasting like an infusion of potpourri.
But creating attention-getting boxes and good teas was only half the battle. They still had to get grocery-store shelves fully loaded. Their “just call the store and ask for a meeting” approach has, to date, gotten them into Nesters Market and Meinhardt Fine Foods. They also recently inked a deal with Waves Coffee shops, and they sell on-line at www.fullyloadedtea.com/ ($7.99 for 28 grams).
Office wear is usually jeans for this self-styled “comfortable” company, which boasts one employee (and is hunting for a sales manager). The kitchen/laboratory displays flasks filled with camomile, calendula, hibiscus, and lavender, and looks out over the peaked rooflines of old Kitsilano. But the work ethic is new Kits—7 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week—and recently, time was so tight between trade shows in Vancouver and Los Angeles that the sisters flipped a coin to see who would fly to LAX and who would drive down with the display booth.
An organic line will debut later this year. Eventually, they plan to move into other beverage and food products; it’s unlikely to be the same old same old. The Fully Loaded Tea selection already includes Tomato Rebel Black Tea (which contains tomato and basil, a fruit and an herb) and Cucumber Mojo White Tea, Popoff and Lenova’s response to a self-imposed challenge of creating the craziest—but still good-tasting—blend they could come up with. It also contains carrots.