GROWING up in Johannesburg, Jessica Bonin was an avid performer. With theatre as her best form of expression and her biggest love, studying philosophy and drama was an obvious choice.
“After immersing myself into a beautiful world of creativity, I realised I wanted to be behind the scenes creating the magic, so film seemed like a great avenue,” says Bonin, who graduated from Rhodes University in 2004 and did an honours degree in film production at Afda.
“I wanted to do content-driven work like documentaries, but, due to the nature of the industry, found myself stuck in commercials.”
Being trapped behind a desk, with long hours and mounting stress, wasn’t part of the plan. It’s why her initial excitement began to fade. It’s also why she chose to walk away after five years of her Cape Town career and follow her childhood love for tea instead.
“My mom always had an array of teas to drink at home and my gran always knew how to make the perfect cup,” Bonin recalls. “One day she asked me to make her tea, which I did regularly. But she sent it back three times, telling me I’d made it wrong. I couldn’t understand why as I applied the same principles. Eventually she told me she could taste that I wasn’t making it with love; I was distracted that day. It was then that I realised there was more to tea than just water and leaves.”
Bonin lacked the will to get out of bed when working in the film industry but was still petrified at the thought of changing careers. Yet even though some people couldn’t understand her decision or see it as a viable choice, she received support from her family and friends.
“Tea was the vessel that allowed me to express myself and follow my happiness,” she says. “It inspired me, intrigued me and challenged me. It brought a smile to my face and, with every cup, the rabbit hole appeared endless. I saw it as a way to continually evolve.”
So began Lady Bonin’s Tea. To test her idea without investing in a restaurant or café, she started selling takeaway tea at markets in and around Cape Town in 2010, expanding to festivals and private parties the following year. Inspired by her time travelling through India, where she realised that tea was “a common language to all”, the goal was to create a space where people could connect the way they do over coffee, albeit in a slower way.
“We live in a coffee-driven world where we’re constantly trying to be somewhere else and we use stimulants to get there,” she says. “But there are far more enjoyable and sustainable ways that produce greater outcomes. Tea creates a physiological effect that heightens the senses, relaxes the body and clears the mind. These are all conditions conducive to better functioning overall.”
The business sources its tea from SA, Sri Lanka, China and Japan, among other countries, and sells them at Faithful to Nature, Wellness Warehouse, independent health stores, other retail outlets and its own shop.
Most popular are the Matcha (finely ground green tea leaf), Rooibos Choc Chilli Chai (with rooibos, masala spices, cocoa and chilli), Moulin Rouge (rooibos, roses and vanilla), Teatox (honeybush, detoxing herbs and spices), Bush Doctor (honeybush, buchu and star anise) and Harmoniser (buchu, fruits, flowers and herbs to soothe and balance emotions and hormones).
“We offer high teas, tea and food pairings and tea tastings,” she says. “I’ve been offering courses, which are an in-depth exploration into the origin and specifics of tea through an adapted Chinese tea ceremony, but we aim to incorporate more ceremonies from around the world. For example, I was recently in Japan to learn ‘Wabi-cha’: ‘The Way of Tea’. This is a beautiful ceremony developed by Zen monks 2,000 years ago. It’s how matcha was originally consumed.”
Lady Bonin’s Tea broke even in its third year and, five years after it began, received its first round of funding to scale up and meet demand. Though current expenses outweigh sales, Bonin believes this will be balanced out by September, with new profits in the next financial year.
“We’ve increased turnover incrementally,” she says. “Our last increase was 40% of the previous financial year and we expect this to double once our scaling efforts come into effect. We’re happy with our growth, as it’s been organic. Now we’re going to fly!” Driving this growth is her passionate team. The seven employees are predominantly women because Bonin believes in providing opportunities in the male-dominated agriculture and agri-processing industries. More than that, the farms the business supports provide mentorship programmes and community development initiatives.
“We cultivate our employees within the business, working hard to provide ever-increasing skill sets and training,” she says. “I believe in co-creation and am building this business with every employee in my company. We have close relationships with each other and all play vital roles.”
Bonin has just launched a dedicated Tea Bar in Cape Town’s Long Street, which also sells its full range. To this it will add seven new teas with its distributor, Harrewyn Organics. Beyond that, the plan is the launch an online shop next year to make the range available countrywide. And given her belief that “life is about exploration and limitless possibilities”, international expansion is a natural next step.
“The other avenues within the business have grown from the first seed and I’ve now come full circle to the original idea, just with experience, know-how and confidence,” she says. “Tea is my business, my practice and my passion. And without passion, there’s no point.”