In the latest instalment in a series showing how County Durham is Powered by People, PETER BARRON talks to an entrepreneur helping to give regeneration a distinctly local flavour...

ASKED why her business boomed during the lockdown, Liza Johnson takes a sip of tea as she considers the answer: “If you send British people home in a crisis, what do they do? They stick the kettle on,” she says.

The world may be in the grip of a pandemic, but Liza’s business – selling hundreds of blends of loose-leaf tea over the internet from a former County Durham pub – is enjoying record sales.

In May, two months into lockdown, turnover at The Tea Enthusiasts, based at Dipton, near Consett, had tripled year-on-year, and orders continue to pour in.

“It’s been going so well we nearly ran out of boxes,” says Liza. “I suppose people are looking for a bit of comfort in strange times, and tea fits the bill.”

The business has been coming to the boil nicely since Liza founded it 16 years ago. She looks back to her childhood for the first signs of her entrepreneurial instincts.

Liza was born in Germany. Her father, Kit, was in the Army, and she was five when Catterick became his final posting. The family settled an hour’s drive up the A1, in North Shields, where Liza’s mother, Carol, bought a bookshop – the first of several family businesses.

It was during her school days that Liza spotted the chance to make money: “I realised that if I went to the cash and carry with my parents, I could sell sweets at school for a profit,” she recalls.

She went on to qualify as a social worker, but it wasn’t long before she followed her parents’ example and launched her own business, The Tea Enthusiasts, in 2004. “I’m a foodie at heart, I enjoy trying new flavours and I was already experimenting with different teas,” she says.

Liza launched The Tea Enthusiasts as an online business from a bedroom at her parents’ house, even though she knew “next to nothing” about e-commerce. “It was a very steep learning curve,” she acknowledges. But she learned quickly.

A website –– was developed, and Liza celebrated her first eBay sale with a bottle of wine. Nine years later, with the business flourishing, the derelict Red Lion pub in Dipton was converted into the company’s new base as well as Liza’s home.

These days the company ships more than 200 blends of tea – many of them bespoke – around the world and development plans for more are always in the pipeline.

Liza’s influence began to spread beyond her own business in 2018 when she engaged in the Durham Business Opportunities Programme managed by Business Durham, the

economic development arm of Durham County Council. The programme featured a sector-specific strand of support – the Durham Food and Drink Network (DFDN).

Liza took part in a labelling workshop to help develop new branding, ready for her products being sold in shops as well as online.

A year later, the DFDN opened a pop-up shop, called Love Durham, in the Prince Bishops Centre, in Durham City, enabling Liza and 40 other food and drink suppliers to sell their wares.

When the Love Durham initiative came to a natural conclusion, Liza – along with Matthew Booth, of the Working Hand Brewery, based at Leamside, County Durham – retained the business model and started their own community interest company (CIC) called Discovering Durham.

The CIC was launched shortly before lockdown in March, but the shop in the Prince Bishops Centre had to close within two weeks. However, with Liza as project manager, Discovering Durham continued with online events before the shop reopened on June 15 with a resilience plan in development.

“The relationship with Business Durham has been a healthy one, making running a business in Durham a really positive experience, with lots of support,” she says.

One of the tasty outcomes of Discovering Durham was a new custom blend, appropriately named Durham Tea. Liza included customers in the creative process of its development by asking them to write down what flavours they associated with the county. Suggestions included roses – in honour of Durham Cathedral’s Rose Window – hedgerow fruits and juniper berries in due recognition of Durham’s historic associations with gin.

“Someone put down corned beef pie, but that was taking it too far!” she laughs.

The pie may have been the limit, but Durham Tea has gone on to become a regional favourite among the inventive blends that are now on sale at 11 outlets.

Apart from Liza, the company employs two full-time members of staff and one part-time assistant, and there’s plenty to keep the team busy. Their latest commission was a unique tea to go on sale at Beamish, The Living Museum of the North. Complete with stylish Edwardian packaging, Beamish Blend Tea – a “traditionally robust Northern breakfast tea” – is now in production.

It all adds up to Guy Bashford, business engagement officer with Business Durham, who describes Liza as “a fantastic example” of the Powered by People movement which places people at the forefront of promoting County Durham as a great place to live, work, and do business.

“Liza’s a serial entrepreneur who’s shown great enterprise, flexibility and tenacity,” he says. “But she’s also someone who’s reinvigorated our support mechanisms and developed the concept under her own steam, helping other businesses along the way.”

So what next for the entrepreneur who’s already tasted well-earned success? “We’re in a healthy growth pattern and, despite all the challenges of COVID-19, Brexit and a global recession, I’m confident there are still plenty of growth opportunities for us,” she says. “We’re aiming for world tea domination!”

In times of crisis and beyond, Liza Johnson is guaranteed to go on supplying a sense of normality.


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