David Segal takes another swing at tea

The founder of DavidsTea is back in business with Firebelly, taking some lessons from his original brand.

Firebelly 2

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By Will Novosedlik

David Segal is really into tea leaves.

Not the kind that tell you the future, but the kind you use to build a direct-to-consumer business. Which, if Segal’s’s past is any indication, has the makings of a great future.

Segal is the “David” behind DavidsTea, the high-end tea retailer he founded in 2008 and sold in 2015. During the pandemic, DavidsTea was forced to shutter most of its stores in order to offset its losses. At the time, the decision was to transition its business away from bricks-and-mortar and instead focus on selling its branded products in grocery stores.

Two years after selling DavidsTea, Segal tried something a little different and co-founded Mad Radish, a six-location gourmet fast food chain. While many other restaurants have been forced to close due to COVID, Mad Radish has weathered the pandemic storm.

But as excited as he was (and still is) about being in the QSR business, Segal’s passion for tea continued to tug at him. So in November 2021 he launched his second specialty tea emporium, this time making it DTC only.

DavidsTea was known not only for its wide, ever-changing collection of teas but also for its very carefully designed retail experience and accessories. Segal’s new venture, which he has named Firebelly, is all digital, powered by Shopify.

Firebelly 3“When I started DavidsTea you needed to have a server room. Nobody would have that today. We had a whole allocation department to know where to send tea, and we had warehouses,” says Segal. “But now the supply chain is a lot more developed. The technology platforms make it much easier to start selling and we just felt it was the best way to launch the brand. People spend a lot more time on their phones or on their computers and we’re hoping that with so many of us working from home, tea can become a little bit more of a ritual when you need that break in the afternoon.”

The reduced infrastructure of a DTC storefront also has the added advantage of allowing Segal to focus on his obsession: the tea itself.

“We’re trying to take it up a notch. With DavidsTea we had too many varieties to manage, and customers had too many to choose from,” he explains. “With Firebelly, we’ve only done 20 teas. Ten of them are single origin rare teas, and the others are blends with different herbs, spices and fruits, and we’re not using any artificial flavoring in any of them. So, for example, we’re using real Madagascar vanilla – instead of vanilla extract – real ginger and real cinnamon. The flavouring in most mainstream teas is made in a lab.”

Not using any artificial flavourings, which tend to react chemically with the glue used on commercial grade pouches, also allows Firebelly to use a fully compostable Ziploc bag, making Firebelly one of the first tea companies to do that.

Firebelly 4As he did with his first venture, Segal has curated a line of accessories that value aesthetics as much as function. They include a travel mug that stops the infusion without needing to take out the tea, and an infuser that won’t drip all over he table. When you take it out of your tea, it has its own holding cup. For storage the whole thing nests comfortably inside Firebelly’s custom teacups.

Segal says Firebelly is promoting its teas via digital and social advertising, adding that he sees his target customer ranging between 25 to 45, with a sophisticated palate and “an appreciation for the finer things in life.” When asked about the competitive landscape, he admits it’s very crowded, but believes there’s enough room for Firebelly.

“It’s not a zero-sum game. There’s no real dominant player at the high-end,” he says. And with the classic confidence of a natural-born entrepreneur, he continues, “we’re just going to do our thing, curating incredible teas and driving as much trial as we can. Because we really believe that when you try it, you’re going to love it.” If his initial success is anything to go by, his entrepreneurial hubris is not unfounded.

When asked about the most important lesson he learned from his first tea company, he doesn’t have to think too hard about it.

“You really need to have that passion for product. If you don’t love it, if you’re not your company’s biggest customer, then you’re probably going to miss a lot of things. Passion just makes you a better leader. It makes you more thorough in your evaluation of things. That attitude has really served me well.”