Five years after leaving his namesake company, DavidsTea, to pursue other ventures, tea enthusiast David Segal is returning to his passion. (Why? “I really like tea,” Segal told Motherboard.) The new startup is called Firebelly Tea, and Segal and his partner, Shopify president Harley Finkelstein, are billing it as a “21st century tea” company. In practice this seems to mean that it is being positioned as vaguely tech related, direct-to-consumer, curated for Instagram, and about something bigger than tea.
“Crafted from 100% real ingredients, we are here to make tea the official drink of the 21st century,” the company states on its website.
As the second most popular beverage in the world after water, and with a history dating back almost 5,000 years, tea has a plausible claim to being the official drink of this century, as well as many others. What it lacks is total cultural dominance in the U.S., despite more than 150 million Americans drinking it every day (at least according to the Tea Association of the USA). Segal believes this is because Americans are drinking horrible-tasting teas, and drinking them all wrong.
“You’re not drinking great tea,” he said. “I’m hoping we can show America what great tea tastes like.” He believes Americans will learn to love more complex teas in the same way they’ve learned to love more complex tequilas, but compared the typical tea Americans drink right now to “eating cheesecake.”
“Cheesecake’s great. But it’s not a meal. If you eat cheesecake for dinner, it doesn’t really satisfy you. And if you eat cheesecake everyday, at some point you grow apart from it,” Segal said, again, referring to tea. “We really want to make teas that you’re going to grow with, that get better on the third cup, the 10th cup, the 30th cup.” (Editor’s note: It should be noted somewhere that high-quality bagged and loose-leaf teas are readily available to Americans in supermarkets all over the country.)
The name, Firebelly, is not a reference to the (questionable) belief that tea can help burn fat, but rather an indication of Segal’s own personal belief that tea can make you a better person.
“It’s this idea that tea can really put the fire in your belly. Tea is in many ways a performance-enhancing drink,” Segal told me, referencing, among other things, claims that tea helps with digestion and releases caffeine into your bloodstream “a little bit” differently than coffee, allowing people to avoid an afternoon crash.
Segal said part of the reason tea is less popular in the U.S. than in other countries is that it is associated with femininity, hippies, and the couple of times a year when someone is sick with a sore throat. But he says key individuals will see the light soon.
“There’s a lot of people—particularly entrepreneurs and creators and rainmakers, people that innovate and make things happen—that I think are going to be the ones to see through some of the stereotypes around tea,” Segal said.
Segal argues that coffee is “the nine-to-five drink” and “synonymous with office culture,” which he believes the American workforce is moving away from as people adjust to remote work. “Tea is the opposite. Tea is for artists. Tea is for creatives,” he said. “With tea, you have such a variety of different flavors and different benefits. There’s really an opportunity to showcase your individuality with tea.”
When Segal and Finkelstein first became friends, Finkelstein wasn’t much of a tea drinker himself. That changed when Segal curated some select green teas for him. Then, last year, the pair decided the world needed another type of tea company, one that took a drink enjoyed by humanity since the beginning of the Bronze Age and gave it a Silicon Valley spin.
“We’re kindred spirits. Neither of us watch football on Sundays. We just do entrepreneurship,” Segal said of his relationship with Finkelstein.
Segal left DavidsTea, which became popular for its original loose-leaf teas, one year after the company went public. (A spokesperson said Segal was leaving to “dedicate more of his time to exploring other entrepreneurial interests,” though it was reportedly related to “infighting.”) While DavidsTea offers more than 150 types of tea, Firebelly is starting with just 20 blends, selected with extreme care by Segal.
“I tasted thousands of teas to come up with the ones who want to launch,” Segal said.
Segal is hoping to be an evangelist who changes the way Americans conceptualize tea culture. “Nobody’s really showing up to be like, ‘No, no, no, no—2 p.m., have a tea,’” Segal said. Segal wants to convince people after 9 p.m. to have a chocolate mint tea to wind down or skip alcohol on Tuesday and have tea with friends instead. “You don’t always have to have alcohol,” he said. “Have some tea with friends. Like, it’s great.”
Because a tea company can’t just be a tea company in 2021, FireBelly is positioning itself as a pseudo-technological, “DTC” lifestyle brand that is aiming to make the world a better place. Pour with purpose, the website states.
“When you can taste the difference and feel the difference, you’re more likely to make a difference,” Segal claims in a promotional video.
Segal told me that Firebelly is“first and foremost” a tea company. “But tech is certainly a big part of the equation and will be going forward,” he added, saying that “today, all companies are tech companies.” This includes tea companies, which is why he believes Finkelstein’s experience at Shopify will be so valuable.
“He’s helped me understand better how tea can fit into a modern work life,” Segal said. “Tech and the way tech works is changing the paradigm.”
As a result, Firebelly’s boxes boast a QR code that leads to “pro tips” and videos that run 30 seconds to a minute. There’s an online subscription program coming in the future. Its state-of-the-art travel mug allows for both hot and iced tea and has “little holes” so the “pour is perfect” and the tea “doesn’t splash you in the face,” Segal said. “A non-drip spout, flow control for sipping, and auto stop infusion that prevents over-steeping [also enhance your tea-drinking experience,” one promotional post stated.
Unlike DavidsTea, which has struggled through store closures (and declining sales) during the pandemic, Firebelly will follow the lead of Casper and Blue Apron by bypassing stores and serving customers directly online. While Segal won’t rule out the possibility of future “experiences at the store level,” he believes “stores are going to become more the discovery center, but less the distribution point” for retailers like his own.
Segal seems to truly believe Firebelly delivers “superior teas curated with modern living in mind,” another company line. Modern living, in this case, includes an emphasis on sustainability (Segal boasted of his “compostable Ziploc bags”) and an emphasis on design that appeals to the millennial Instagram aesthetic (the company’s tea boxes are designed to look like books on a bookshelf with Instagramable colors).
“This is designed with an aesthetic that you want to showcase,” Segal said. “I think it speaks to today’s lifestyle.”
Leaning into direct-to-consumer, sustainability, design, and tech comes with a certain sense of obligation. (“You better learn how to use tech in a smart way for whatever business you are,” Segal said at one point.) In the startup economy, every entrepreneur must be heard to be saying they are running a tech company. This is what wealthy venture capitalists want.
In the middle of our conversation, Segal said he believes rituals have become more important in recent years, as lives around the world moved inside the home as a result of the global pandemic. More workers than ever are working where they rest and are having trouble transitioning at the end of the day into a more relaxed mindset, Segal included. He believes a ceremonial drink to cap off the day can help.
“There’s something nice about rituals, and I think tea can be part of that,” Segal said. Then, he added: “And, you know, we can offer that in an online, direct-to-consumer experience.”
The project is currently self-funded by Segal and Finkelstein, but it’s not hard to imagine investors will come clamoring soon.
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