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Carly Helfand/MEDILL

Tony Gebely opened Chicago Tea Garden, an online retailer of authentic tea, in 2010.   

Chicago Tea Garden flourishes through social media

by Carly Helfand
March 01, 2012


Carly Helfand/MEDILL

Carly Helfand/Medill

Herbal teas are spreading faster than ever. Touted for their health benefits and prescribed for ailments ranging from viruses to digestion problems, they can be found in grocery stores, convenience stores, and the chain tea shops popping up in shopping malls all over the Chicago area.

What many don’t know, however, is that herbal teas are technically not teas at all.

Tony Gebely knows better.

“Mint tea – nope. Chamomile tea – nope. If it doesn’t come from the tea plant, it’s not tea,” he said.

Gebely, 29, opened Chicago Tea Garden, an online retailer of authentic tea and teaware, in early 2010, processing orders by night from a small space on the West Side. For Gebely, the mission is simple: bring true, high-quality, affordable tea to the everyday person.

“You can go to the grocery store and you can get bad tea, or you can even go to a lot of seemingly boutique tea shops and get subpar tea, but there’s not really easily accessible, easily affordable tea for the masses,” said Griffin Kelton, a customer who has worked at several tea companies. “I think Tony has done a great job of seamlessly merging the connoisseur market and the connoisseur offering with the general market.”

Gebely first conceived Chicago Tea Garden on a month-long trip to China in 2006. He didn’t know much about tea before the visit, and there he was exposed to authentic tea and witnessed the role it played in society and culture for the first time.

“It was just something that my mom would make when I was sick,” Gebely said. “That’s how a lot of people start. I didn’t know there were crazy tea cultures and amazing things like that, but when I traveled to China, it was just – it was everywhere.”

After another trip east that included cultural tea experiences in Malaysia, India and Nepal, Gebely returned to Chicago determined to start the company. But with a budget depleted by his backpacking travels, he abandoned ideas for a brick-and-mortar shop and drafted a business plan based around an online store. JPMorgan Chase granted him a small business loan to start the company in 2008.

“They were accepting nobody at that point,” Gebely said. “It was amazing that got through.”

Gebely, who works full-time as an interactive director for an apartment-finding company, built his website on his own, and after securing a small storehouse space, startup costs were minimal.

“It was these tables, shelves from Home Depot, and the initial stock,” he said. “That was it.”

Since then, business has grown monthly, and after a year, Chicago Tea Garden was turning a profit. Sales exceeded $20,000 in 2010, and Gebely says business grew by double-digit rates in the company’s second year. Gebely has managed to expand the business while staying loyal to traditional, unflavored tea – something he says many brick-and-mortar retailers can’t afford to do.

But for Gebely, who blogs regularly about tea and is currently working on his first book, the mission is not only to bring authentic, high quality tea to his customers but to help others develop a true appreciation for tea and dispel some of the myriad myths about tea and its effects.

“Tony is dedicated to tea in the purest of concepts,” Kelton said. “He would never sacrifice quality – all his teas are always going to be top-notch. At the same time, he’s never going to make outlandish claims about tea. It’s always about the purity and the fact that ‘This isn’t artisan tea or award-winning, it’s just amazing.’ It’s really what sets everyone apart.”

Blogging – along with other social media tools – has been instrumental to Chicago Tea Garden’s success. While other tea retailers can draw customers into their stores with samples, Gebely relies on his posts to attract traffic to the site.

“I don’t see other tea companies as competition whatsoever,” Gebely said. “They’re just bringing people into the world of tea that don’t know about it. They’re doing the education piece, where I don’t have to, which is great because people need to be educated.”

Gebely, who hasn’t done any advertising in the company’s second year, started blogging as soon as he returned to the U.S. and had an established online presence before the business was even started.

“One day, I was like, ‘Everyone, I’m starting a business!’ and I had customers already,” Gebely said. “I try to tell everyone that’s starting a business, ‘Set up Twitter, set up a blog, start blogging yesterday.’ You can have a captive audience before you even have a product.”

“It’s not that hard, especially with something that’s niche like tea because I didn’t even have to make my own content,” he continued. “I could start a Twitter account and send people to other peoples’ content I thought was cool, and people liked it and they liked me as a filter and they followed me. That’s easy.”

Gebely currently has more than 24,000 followers on Twitter, and his web presence has paid off. While initially he expected his customers would be primarily based in Chicago, he now receives orders from all over the U.S. and abroad. Social media has also allowed him to connect with tea farmers, and samples regularly pour in from countries such as China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka. Gebely also recently became the first retailer to import tea from New Zealand, which longtime customer Chris Williamson says has fostered his reputation as one of the best tea purveyors in the Midwest.

“He’s not conforming to the typical fine tea areas,” Williamson said. “He’s branching out to places to obtain kind of these new but still high quality teas that are just a whole new breed or brand of tea, and that’s something he’s clearly taken upon himself to distinguish Chicago Tea Garden from other businesses elsewhere in the country.”

Maybe most importantly, however, is that Tony’s writings have been picked up across the web, including an article that appeared on and ultimately spurred his book deal.

“Tony’s tea presence in social media has kind of permeated a lot of different sectors,” Kelton said. “It’s not just tea people that know about him anymore.”

Gebely is excited about Chicago’s burgeoning tea culture, which seems to be part of a greater trend toward traditional tea that has allowed him to start a successful business amid an economic recession.

“It’s almost like a cheap way to travel,” Gebely said. “You’re experiencing all these different cultures just by staying at home, grabbing a gong fu set and going for it. It’s not like it’s an unobtainable thing to get into.”

Despite the growing tea culture in America, Gebely knows that his product is not for everyone. And while he hopes one day to be able to devote all of his time to Chicago Tea Garden, he knows it’s probably still a few years off. Until then, he plans to keep educating tea drinkers as best he can.

“The way marketing’s going in America and the way the industry’s going, anything hot and in water is going to be tea,” Gebely said. “I realize that. But I just want people to know that this is tea. This is real tea.”