Jennifer Commins refreshes the tea industry with Pluck
Earlier this year, Toronto-based Pluck Tea launched its newest flavour – Pluck Pekoe. Founded in 2012 by Jennifer Commins, Pluck is “dedicated to creating a product that tastes great and leaves the earth a little better along the way.”
A certified tea sommelier, Commins travelled the globe in search of premium tea leaves that were plucked from sustainable sources only. She met chefs, bartenders and baristas, visited local farmers markets and blended teas with local ingredients right at her kitchen table.
Today, Pluck Tea blends, packs and delivers their sustainably and ethically sourced fresh teas to thousands of restaurants and offices.
In an e-interview with Food in Canada’s editor, Nithya Caleb, Commins explains the uniqueness of Pluck Tea and its latest product line.
What motivated you to start Pluck Tea?
JC: As a lifelong tea drinker, I was motivated by my passion project to ‘fix restaurant tea.’ There was a clear quality gap on restaurant drink menus where tea was concerned, which is a problem, as tea service is often the final impression before the customer pays the bill, decides on the tip, and makes plans to return (or not). I wanted to shake up the industry, provide an inspired tea experience for restaurants and consumers, and add a little fun.
What sets Pluck Tea apart from other tea manufacturers?
JC: Pluck challenges the status quo and offers a unique experience using signature blends with a personal touch and local twist. Innovation is our cup of tea. We offer all our teas in both loose and bagged format, and several in pre-portioned iced tea sachets. We only use the finest locally and ethically sourced ingredients. Our mission is to build the most sustainable tea company on the planet.
What are your popular flavours?
JC: Pluck’s Earl Grey Cream is a perennial favourite. Naturally flavoured with bergamot essence (as all great Earl Greys are), we’ve added a hint of vanilla to this tea for a velvety, creamy finish. We recently launched Lavender Earl Grey Cream (with locally grown lavender) to expand our EGC offering, and it’s already in our top 10!
Verbena Blues, our magic colour-changing herbal infusion includes butterfly pea flower, lemongrass and ginger, and makes for a show-stopping iced tea. When lemon juice is added, the blue hue of the tea transforms to a vibrant pink. We won an international award for this tea in 2017 at the World Tea Expo.
Finally, our brand new Pluck Pekoe collection was just released this fall, and has already landed on the shelves at Whole Foods, and several specialty retailers. This organic, Rainforest Alliance, direct trade collection of ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘bold’ tea challenges the orange pekoe category in Canada with a premium proposition for every tea drinker in a plastic-free tea bag format.
Where do you source your tea leaves? What is your procurement policy?
JC: The first Pluck teas were blended with dried fruits and flowers purchased from farmers at a local market in Toronto. From day one, Pluck has been committed to sustainable and ethical sourcing as our ‘Tea for Good’ promise to our customers. Several ingredients that we use in our tea blends are grown right here in our own backyard, and many are upcycled. Examples of upcycled include grape skins from Organic and Biodynamic Southbrook Vineyards, citrus peel from Chaser’s Juice and cacao shells from Chocosol. Locally grown ingredients include lavender from Prince Edward County. Canadian-grown ingredients include cranberries and blueberries from Nova Scotia, chaga from BC, and, coming soon, seaweed from Newfoundland.
When it comes to the tea plant (camellia sinensis) we work directly with a growing network of Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade and Organic-certified tea farms to source the freshest, highest quality teas possible.
We directly source many teas from international sustainability award-winning gardens around the globe. Pluck Tea was awarded the Sustainability award by the Tea Association of Canada and the US for our sustainable ingredient sourcing practices.
What type of packaging do you use?
JC: This fall, Pluck launched our glass jar format to consumers. Infinitely refillable, these decorative jars have been designed and printed in Canada and are intended to be kept and reused.
Our freshly ground matcha is packaged at source in Japan directly into high quality aluminum canisters, eliminating the need for additional foil pouches (usually tucked inside the tins) that other companies use. We offer refill pouches of matcha in minimal, flat packaging for easy replenishment.
Our Pluck Pekoe teas are packed in block bottom resealable PE bags, which are recyclable. This packaging ships flat, reducing volume in transport to us. Our 15 tea bag boxes are designed and printed for us in Toronto and are recyclable.
Our pyramid-shaped tea bags are made from a certified non-GMO sugarcane-based material called Neo Soilon. The bags are ultrasonically joined at the seams without the use of heat. Neo Soilon is a trade name for PLA (poly lactic acid), a plant-based polymer that is derived from sugarcane fibres and is 100 per cent biodegradable, compostable and petroleum-based plastic-free.
Where are your products sold?
JC: Our teas are on menu at leading cafes and restaurants and sold at select retailers in Canada and across some states in the US. Customers can also purchase teas directly from us online at pluckteas.com where we offer emissions-free delivery across Toronto.
What sets Pluck Pekoe apart from the rest?
JC: Pluck Pekoe offers three blends (light, medium and bold) for different types of tea drinkers and times of the day. The product line only uses plant-based and compostable materials for production.
We have direct trade agreements with the farmers who produce the teas and pay fair prices directly to the tea growers. We also pay a social premium per unit to fund educational programs for the children of tea farmers.
These teas are certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance, and are 100 per cent Rwandan Mountain Tea.
How has Pluck Tea grown since its launch?
JC: The company grew from a handful of restaurant and café customers, and a folding table at the Wychwood Barns Farmer’s Market, to a company that supplies thousands of customers (including hundreds of restaurants) over the past nine years through consistent innovation, commitment to our Tea for Good mission, and challenging the status quo.
COVID certainly threw a wrench into our growth within the foodservice and office sectors (tea isn’t a great take-out or delivery option, and most workplaces were closed), and so our team worked incredibly hard to create and deliver on a differentiated and compelling direct-to-consumer strategy. We are pleased to report that thanks to the incredible work of our team, the support of our customers, and the passion from our distributor Neal Brothers, Pluck Tea is now in a stronger position than ever. As our restaurant customers re-open for indoor dining, we are thrilled to be here for them with new innovations, recipes and profit-driving menu options.
We’ve won some prestigious awards including a silver medal at the 2017 Global Tea Championship and the sustainability award at the 2018 North American Tea Association.
We have invested in a gorgeous, natural light-filled production facility in the Greater Toronto Area.
What were some of the challenges?
JC: The most significant recent challenge was the impact of COVID. Imagine having a well-diversified customer base that included hundreds of B2B customers across many markets, and then having your order desk fall silent for months. Crickets. Who could have planned for this? We lost 85 per cent of our business in one month.
Constraint is the mother of invention they say, and invent we did! We launched our teas into the retail market through Neal Brothers at lightning speed, and I learned how to build a website using Shopify, so that we could build our direct-to-consumer market simply and easily. Today we are stronger than ever, and we’re hiring!
What sort of support systems would have made the journey smoother?
JC: I started Pluck Tea with $5K and a credit card back in 2012 and sold some shares to my now partners seven years ago when we started to grow too fast to fund our inventory needs at that critical time. This single transaction has been the only cash injection we have ever received in our company’s history, and we have successfully funded our own growth since that day with zero debt. I often ask myself what we could have done differently with more access to funds, but at the end of the day, there’s something incredibly rewarding about the sustainable way we’ve grown the company to this point. Today, we aren’t able to ‘push in’ to big retail by buying distribution (through paying high listing fee) to get on shelf like other companies. Instead, we are pulled in through customer demand and continuous innovation.
I recently helped to launch Food Founder’s Forum with Craig Morantz from Snack Conscious, which is a community of established food company founders that gather monthly to share insights, help each other navigate this ever-evolving marketplace, and provide a safe place to share our challenges in a confidential setting. It’s been a game-changer for those who have joined our community. It would have been wonderful to find a group like this earlier on.
What are your future plans for Pluck Tea?
JC: We look forward to growing our retail reach across Canada through a new distribution partner on the West Coast, and to bringing innovative new products to life that include more upcycled ingredients.