The story of The Kandula Tea Company

Here Jane, from The Kandula Tea Company, talks to Relish about starting up her business, how & why the brand oozes personality (it’s a great story!) and how they achieve such great tasting teas that win top awards.

Firstly, can you tell us where the idea came from for your business?

Gail & I met in our teens (which was a while ago now!) and have been firm friends ever since. We had never worked together before Kandula but had both run our own companies. Gail first went to Sri Lanka in 1995 and instantly fell in love with the country and the people. After selling the UK business that she ran with her husband, they both knew that they would travel and spend more time in Colombo. During her visits and over the last few years, Gail spent time on the tea plantations and was inspired to learn more about the tea industry. She in turn met our tea blenders, got chatting and the idea of importing teas was born.

I have been working in new product development, brands and marketing for food and drink companies for many years and so when Gail came to me with the idea of setting up our own tea company under our own brand I jumped at the chance. We are passionate about tea – we are both great foodies – and this is key to what we set out to do. We were increasingly disappointed with the teas and infusions on offer in the UK and Gail was seeing first hand the quality and flavours that could be achieved with whole leaf Ceylon teas. 

What is the importance of the elephants to your brand and to you personally? And why the name Kandula?

The idea for our brand was inspired by the importance of elephants in Sri Lankan culture. Kandula is the name of a legendary elephant in Sri Lanka who belonged to King Dutugemunu and is said to have played a significant role in the shaping of the nation during the second century BC. We chose Kandula as the inspiration for our brand because he is still an important part of Sri Lankan heritage. Being animal lovers we feel that the elephant embodies nobility, courage, pride, loyalty and companionship and so we decided to dedicate our brand to these magnificent creatures.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Elephant orphanage you support and why you do this?

Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage looks after elephants that have been orphaned or injured in the wild. It cares for more than 80 elephants, from old tuskers to newborns. Visitors are welcome and elephants are still so important in Sri Lankan culture that the local schoolchildren are taken along to learn about how the elephants are cared for. Our visits to Pinnawela were so memorable that we decided to support the work that they do. So for every cup of Kandula Tea you drink it really is ‘good for you and the elephants too.’

I understand one of your team is based in Sri Lanka; why is that so important and what are the benefits?

One of our key strengths is our relationship with our tea blenders in Sri Lanka. Over the past 3 years we have established strong working relationships with the blenders who produce our Single Estate Green & White teas and our Orange Pekoe blends & infusions. Gail spends several months a year overseeing the blending process of all our teas and infusions and is instrumental in the tasting, choosing and refining of each of our blends. Gail returns to taste as many times as is needed to get the blends and infusions just the way we want. For example, it took several tasting sessions with our fruit infusion range as we wanted them to taste as good as they smell, with all the natural flavour coming from the whole fruits, spices & herbs; we are really happy to have achieved this.

Building a unique collection is very important to us and our tea blenders help us to create our innovative range. We are able to work creatively with them to achieve that special and distinctive Kandula blend, they appreciate our drive to produce individual teas and infusions and they can provide that special service for us. They have become very much part of the extended Kandula family and it is rewarding to us when they say how important it is to them that we can work face to face. 

Several of your teas have won great taste awards – what do you put that down too?

We are our own consumer and have created a collection of teas and infusions that we enjoy drinking and to have this validated by winning three Great Taste Awards in our first 18 months is brilliant. In 2011 two of our teas were awarded Great Taste Award Gold Stars; our Gold Star Pink Ceylon is an unprecedented tea and unique to us – a blend of our Single Estate green tea with hibiscus – it really is pink! Our Gold Star Peppermint Tea contains pure peppermint leaf and tastes really fresh with no dustiness. And in 2012, our Ceylon English Breakfast was awarded a Gold Star too – a bold bright tea that is full flavoured and refreshing. Our Sri Lankan provenance is also key both in terms of quality and ethical values. Ceylon teas are among the best teas in the world and the production methods used are ecologically and environmentally friendly. But at the end of the day, it’s the feedback we get from our tea drinkers that is so important to us. One customer, in selecting a range of teas for their hampers, had tried and tasted a huge variety of teas from different companies but said that ours ‘stood out head and shoulders above the rest’. And yesterday we received an email from a new internet customer that simply said ‘I LOVED your teas’. That really makes our day! 

Finally, what is the best bit about being part of The Kandula Tea Company?

Where do I start? From an idea, setting up and being part of a truly independent company, creating products we love and enjoy, working with people we respect and learn from, setting ourselves huge challenges (in our 50’s!), being inspired by the communities we work with in Sri Lanka and just meeting lovely people (I’ve never known an industry quite like it). I would also like to say how important we have found Social Media in building our brand in our first 18 months. People are getting to know the Kandula name and are now recognising our pink elephant. It is a great platform for building relationships with our customers and tea devotees, but above all fellow independent food & drink producers whose support for one another, and for each other’s success, is fantastic.

Thanks to Jane for these interesting and useful insights, I’m sure the nuggets in here will inspire. You can learn more about their fascinating story & brand at www.kandulatea.co.uk.