Business

Cozy Leaf tea, run on a Kansas farm, is going places (+video)

VIDEO: Cozy Leaf blends organic ingredients into tea offerings

Cozy Leaf founder Abby Hannaford talks tea. (Bryan Horwath/The Wichita Eagle)
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Cozy Leaf founder Abby Hannaford talks tea. (Bryan Horwath/The Wichita Eagle)

Anyone who spends time with Abby Hannaford isn’t likely to confuse her with someone who lives in a big city.

A Wichita native, Hannaford uses expressions like “jiminy Christmas” and offers tales of chasing after wayward goats at the 5-acre homestead where she and her husband are raising three children, along with a dozen chickens, some bees, a rabbit and, of course, the four goats.

During a recent visit, Hannaford, 33, warned a reporter and photographer against possible attack from her aggressive rooster, Cornelius, while leading them to her “tea house,” an outbuilding where she keeps a product that has been selling briskly in her hometown.

“This is my happy place – it’s quiet in here,” Hannaford said while heading into the 640-square-foot mini-warehouse that holds her creations.

Hannaford is the founder of Cozy Leaf, a small operation that blends organic ingredients into tea offerings with names like “Kansas sunset chai” and “prairie sunrise.”

After first experimenting with a business model in 2009, Hannaford’s concoctions – there are 27 distinct types made from more than 100 ingredients – are now found at several dozen locations around Kansas, including Whole Foods, Natural Grocers and Reverie Coffee Roasters in Wichita.

“We have the potential to double or triple our business in the very near future,” Hannaford said. “It’s been important to me to not go into debt with the business, so I’ve been taking it kind of slow, but that could change soon.”

After starting out by selling her products on the peer-to-peer commerce website Etsy, Hannaford said her operation took off after she was approached by a Whole Foods representative ahead of the natural foods retailer’s foray into the Wichita market last year. Hannaford said her tea – which can also be ordered off of the Cozy Leaf website, cozyleaf.com – has been popular at the chain’s location at 13th Street and Webb.

“When Whole Foods called more than a year ago, it was like, ‘All right, this isn’t just a nights and weekends hobby anymore,’” Hannaford said. “I started to think about this being a serious thing.

“It’s really just taken off lately, and it’s been exciting and kind of scary. It’s something that could potentially go national.”

Possessing a self-described passion for tea, Hannaford said it took her more than a year to perfect the blend for her English breakfast tea. Offering all “loose-leaf” teas with no prepackaged individual bags, Hannaford said Cozy Leaf teas are all organic and never have added flavoring.

“There’s a lot more to it than just dumping it in a bag,” Hannaford said. “I use different importers. The English breakfast tea comes from four different black teas from four regions around the world.

“As I go through that process, I’m thinking that I know I have to get the Nepal tea right and then I need to get the right flush of Darjeeling tea from the right farm. It really blew my mind how much goes into it.”

Though an eventual expansion of Cozy Leaf-related buildings at the Hannaford homestead is a probability, for now the business largely operates in three locations: the tea house, Abby’s kitchen and Reverie’s location on East Douglas in Wichita, where Hannaford and her handful of employees blend and package the teas.

“What Abby does is just very unique,” said Andrew Gough, Reverie’s owner. “… I actually heard about her via a Facebook post by a friend who said they got their tea in the mail from Abby.

“I don’t know of anyone else anywhere near here who blends tea like she does, and she works so hard. Cozy Leaf is only going good places as far as I can tell.”

Making tea taste good

Hannaford’s interest in tea began, she said, during her college years from 2000 until 2003 when she began experiencing vocal cord issues, not an ideal condition for a theater major.

“I was studying theater and music at Sterling College, and I had vocal nodes, so I couldn’t sing or really talk for long periods of time,” Hannaford said. “I started drinking massive amounts of herbal tea, and I thought it just tasted terrible.

“That sparked my interest in trying to make that type of tea taste good. I started experimenting with recipes, and it just evolved.”

After college, she married Bryan Hannaford and began a family while also working in the theater realm in a number of different capacities in the Wichita area. This school year marks the first that she won’t be homeschooling her kids, opening up more time for her Cozy Leaf duties, which is essentially her full-time job now.

“I directed for six years after college, but I hung that hat up in 2007 to homeschool my kids and have a simple farm life,” Abby Hannaford said. “It didn’t turn out to be as simple as I had planned.

“At this point, I could take out a loan for maybe $100,000, and I know the business would grow like crazy town, but that’s not the pace that I want to go at right now. I can’t handle being in 8,000 stores now, but I do want Cozy Leaf to keep growing.”

Yes, please

While branching out into the world of sales calls recently, Hannaford said she was warned by her husband that she would likely hear the word “no” over and over, though that hasn’t been the case yet.

“Bryan is in sales, so he told me to expect to hear a lot of ‘nos’ before hearing the word ‘yes,’” she said with a laugh. “That just hasn’t happened, though. It’s been nothing but yes, yes, yes. Bryan has been telling me that this isn’t how it usually works in sales.

“I haven’t gotten a ‘no’ yet on a sales call, but it’s kind of stressful because, when that happens, I’m just thinking about what I have to do to fill the order.”

Around the time Whole Foods was making its push last year to find products made in the Wichita area to feature in its new store, Hannaford connected with Gough, who, she said, pushed her to take her business to the next level.

“Andy really encouraged me to get my wholesale license and push this further,” Hannaford said. “I didn’t know what I was doing was uncommon. I was making blends for my friends and telling them how to do it and that it was easy.

“They were saying, ‘No, this isn’t easy at all for me.’ The light bulb started to go on that this is kind of a unique thing.”

For Hannaford, the tea business seems to fit perfectly with the rural Kansas lifestyle that seems to fit so perfectly with her.

“My passion is to make an organic, natural option that is good for people but that also tastes good,” Hannaford said. “I want my tea to be something that people want to drink every day.”

Reach Bryan Horwath at 316-269-6708 or bhorwath@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bryan_horwath.

Top-selling Cozy Leaf blends

1. Kansas sunset chai

2. Peaceful dreams

3. Mint meadow

4. English breakfast

5. Immune support

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