Menu
Rural

Selling (herbal) tea to China

NICHE MANUFACTURING: Howard Rubin, front, with staff Tanya Francis and Brent Evans in front of a tea bagging machine. Photo Jamie Brown / Northern Star.
NICHE MANUFACTURING: Howard Rubin, front, with staff Tanya Francis and Brent Evans in front of a tea bagging machine. Photo Jamie Brown / Northern Star. Jamie Brown

HOWARD Rubin of Alstonville's Koala Teas explains his rural business success in simple terms.

"We're selling tea to China," he says, with a hearty laugh.

Some 20 years ago Howard, with his wife Elle Fikke, created a niche business with no proven market and no supply chain.

But they changed all that with diligence and hard work, and today sell most of their product to Asia, with some sold domestically, including to Coles.

We had a crack, we gave it a go. We are small and we appeal to the public.

A multi-tasking staff of six, including Howard and his wife Elle - she creates the new teas and paints the artwork that adorns the packaging - blends a variety of herbs bought in from Australia and beyond, before packaging the evocative aromas into a thousand boxes every day and shipping the teas to buyers.

Last week, Howard travelled to Singapore for a trade show to promote two new blends - an English breakfast tea and a vanilla infusion. To sweeten the deal, he will give away lots of little cuddly koalas - you know the ones, the miniature toy variety that clip on to your clothes.

"Asians are crazy about koalas, particularly the Japanese," Howard explains.

"We get our foot in the door with the pictures of koalas on our packaging, then we open that door a bit more by the fact that we are certified organic and then the door becomes wide open when they taste our teas!"

Koala Teas began as a cottage industry, with Howard and Elle growing the herbs from their home at Clunes.

As Elle is an herbalist by training, the couple created a line of teas - starting with No Worries mint and lemon grass and Dreamtime chamomile and lemon balm.

These two varieties remain the number one and number two sellers. But there is a long line of new teas, including medicinal varieties and a new children's line of herbal infusions.

In the beginning, Howard and Elle worked with a local group of herb growers, starting the Organic Herb Growers of Australia, which in time morphed into Australian Certified Organics. Today, they source herbs through a supplier and keep only enough in stock for the week ahead - a form of Japanese management termed "just in time" - which keeps overheads down and ensures a high level of freshness.

Howard says the real market is in Asia - China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines.

"We have had a crack, we gave it a go," says Howard, who started the business in his mid 40s.

"We are small and we appeal to the public."