By Virginia Kovach
The spicy, earthy smell of herbs is the first thing I notice when I open the door of Little Woods Herbs & Teas, at 136 Main Street. The sounds of running water and cups clinking at the bar mingle with soft music and conversation. Gray bags with hand-written labels line wooden shelves. Front windows give a generous amount of sun to art on the walls, a couple tables, and low bookshelves holding books about healthy living. One or two ladies wearing aprons usually greet me from behind the bar. Usually, a few people are sitting at the bar, sipping tea and chatting.
The store is the retail location for owner Kristin Roach’s custom loose leaf tea blends. She - or any of her staff - will fill you in on exactly what herbs are in each tea and exactly what those herbs can do for you. They might soothe a cold, wake you up, calm you down, help restore tired muscles, or maybe even bring some relief from PMS. You can buy tea to take with you, or you can take a moment to enjoy a cup in-store.
One day when I stopped by Little Woods, Roach was hosting a tea tasting event for the ISU Women’s Potpourri Group, a subsection of the ISU Women’s Club. During the tasting, Kristin gave each guest four four-ounce cups of different teas. With each cup, Roach talked about the herbs, the process required to transform them into tea, and the instructions for brewing a good cup.
When I stopped in to interview Roach about her work and the challenges of owning a business as a woman, she offered me a cup of Gyokuro, a Japanese spring tea. It was a light, fresh-tasting brew. She got the idea to carry this blend from a customer. As I listened, it became clear that learning - from research, from her customers, from whatever is helpful - is key to Roach’s success.
“Yesterday, I was faced with the task of sending out renewal notices to our tea-of-the-month club subscribers,” she said. “We launched it in December, and it’s a three-month subscription. I read a bunch of other renewal notices. Then I read articles about making your renewal notices more impactful.”
She didn’t craft her own renewal notice until she had assimilated all relevant information about how to do it.
“I realized, I don’t just pull things out of thin air,” she said.
Roach’s commitment to learning and preparation started in the beginning. She started out by selling loose leaf medicinal herbs and blends on eBay, then brought her products to farmer’s markets. Opening a physical store was part of a long-term plan. When the space at 136 Main opened up last spring, she realized she was ready for retail sooner than she had thought.
“The year leading up to (the store opening in April 2016), I had actually been writing a business plan, developing inventory lists of things we would need to carry, even lists of fixtures - and figuring out a budget and costs,” she said. “So when the space opened up and the question became, ‘Do we have enough money?’ I was able to look at the research I had done. I was able to answer, ‘Yes.’”
Roach is the majority owner of Little Woods. Her husband, Jason Shaw, is a partial owner. He works as a senior software engineer for HLT, a company based in Iowa City. The two of them have a 3 ½ year old daughter, Lucy. Roach opened up about how family life has changed since opening the shop.
“As a woman business owner, there are a lot of unique challenges,” she said. “It’s often the case that in order to own our own business, as is the case for me, I went from staying home with our child to venturing outside of the home,” she said.
Now there is the extra cost of daycare, but the emotional cost of missing her child every day is hard too.
“I miss Lucy every day. And every day I’m like, I want to leave work early and go pick up Lucy because she’s awesome. And that’s hard,” Roach said.
As Little Woods becomes more established, she intends to cut back on what is now 50-60 hours of work a week so she can spend more time with her daughter.
For all the challenges Roach and her Little Woods team are facing now, the store seems like a success to me. Our conversation came to a close, and I could hear the chatting and cup-clinking from the bar again. I reflected on the peaceful friendliness I always experience there.
I recommend stopping by Little Woods. Even if you don’t know much about tea, you might discover a desire to learn more. Keep an open mind - and try the “Lavender Field of Dreams” blend while you’re in there. It’s my favorite.