Paul Owl Spills the ‘Tea’ on Food and Beverage Entrepreneurship

After years of working as a chef and running his own food service businesses, Paul Owl decided to leap into the food and beverage manufacturing industry with his business, TreeTeas Brewing Co.

After years of working as a chef and running his own food service businesses, Paul Owl decided to leap into the food and beverage manufacturing industry with his business, TreeTeas Brewing Co.

TreeTeas Brewing creates natural teas and syrups with flavours inspired by the region of Serpent River
First Nation, located just west of Sudbury, Ontario.

The idea for the business started when Owl wanted to create a beverage to serve with meals at his previous business, Rez-Q Smokery. Drawing inspiration from his love of chai growing up, he came up with the idea to create an iced tea from scratch.

“I was like, ‘you know, I can’t just serve Pepsi and dull juices. I’m going to create a berry chai cedar tea.’ What I came up with was really nice. It was super flavourful, and people really loved it,” says Owl.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I got a business here.’”

Perfecting the recipe 

Owl then started adjusting the recipe because the way he initially made it would be too expensive to bottle and sell at a reasonable price. His first product was an adaptation of his original wild berry chai iced tea, packaged and sold in Mason Jars.

To get feedback from potential customers, Owl took four cases of the product to a local powwow he was emceeing.

It sold out in minutes.

“People were coming up to me and telling me old stories. It was a reminder of when their grandparents used to have cedar tea on the stove all the time and the different things they did,” he says. “I knew right then and there that I was on to something.”

Owl decided to invest in equipment that would allow him to make larger quantities of the product from his home, and it continued selling out at local powwows. He added a few additional flavours and started selling them at some First Nations stores.

Then Covid-19 hit.

With live events, one of his biggest sales vehicles, restricted, Owl tried to adjust to a delivery subscription model. Though this worked, it wasn’t where he ultimately wanted to take the business. He wanted to grow and expand into more retailers. To do that, he needed to boost capacity and find a co-packer to can his products for wider distribution.

Educating through tea

Today TreeTeas Brewing Co. works with a co-packer in Ottawa. The products are being sold in more First Nations retail stores and continue to sell out at live events. Owl also recently won first place at the Pow Wow Pitch finals, a grassroots competition that supports Indigenous entrepreneurship. This gave him the funding needed to add nutritional labelling to the products.

In collaboration with Madahoki Farm, TreeTeas Brewing now offers flavours such as Cedar Wild Mint and the Cedar Wildberry Chai. They also launched Ziibiins Nibi (stream water), in June 2022 for the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival.

Owl says TreeTeas’ products have the potential to help educate others on First Nations culture.

“This gives us the opportunity to open up conversations and educate people in a good way, where the icebreaker is the drink,” says Owl.

“This is our opportunity, whether it’s through the branding on the box or something on the can that brings them to a website, to start educating about First Nations, our culture, our treaties, and the responsibilities on both sides of that. Doing things in a good way, that really sparks me.”

In the fall, Owl says TreeTeas Brewing plans to expand to more First Nations retailers, as well as bigger retail chains going into 2023.

“I know our growth is absolutely crazy based on what we’re looking at. Once the barcodes and nutritional labelling are on there, then those conversations [with bigger retail chains] really start to happen,” says Owl. “By 2023, I’m hoping within Ontario, we’re looking at somewhere around 500,000 cans a month.”

Advice for food and beverage entrepreneurs

Though running your own food and beverage manufacturing business has its own unique set of challenges, Owl says it gives him the freedom he never had while working for someone else.

“I’ve always wanted to do food on my own terms. When I was in restaurants and resorts, you weren’t really on your own terms,” he says. “You always had someone saying ‘well, that’s not what our clients like,’ or they’re worried about their image as well.”

Owl’s advice for aspiring food and beverage entrepreneurs? Nail down your recipe so you will be able to accurately calculate your production costs.

“You need to know your recipe down to the gram size of what’s going into each can or into each package. Because that’s going to be your cost, and you really need to know your costs,” says Owl.

“As long as you know your costs, you can start to visualize where you want to go with it, who you want to target and who you want to go after. The most important thing is knowing your numbers on what you’re creating and making sure what you’re creating is staying true to what you want.”

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