Originally posted by Laura Nelson for Tri-State Livestock News

It was one booth that couldn’t be lost in the rows of camouflage.

When Big Timber, Mont.-based Tumblewood Teas set up shop in the enormous Las Vegas Convention Center exposition center for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s inaugural Hunter’s Christmas this December, their décor of western “sereni-tea” certainly caught the eye of thousands of visitors making their way through aisle after aisle of weaponry, camouflage, trophy mounts and oh yes… more camouflage.

That was the point.

“We thought it may have been an odd place for a tea company at first too,” co-owner and founder Riza Gilpin laughed. “But the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation saw it as an opportunity. There were so many like products, so they thought Tumblewood would be a welcomed change of scenery.”

As it turned out, the corner “tea time” booth was just the right place for the Montana business owners to set up shop for four days. The Hunter’s Christmas was held in conjunction with the Cowboy Christmas – a major shopping event for Wrangler National Finals Rodeo attendees.

“We sold a lot of tea to new tea drinkers, a lot of people who were surprised they actually did enjoy the flavor of our teas,” Gilpin said. “Because we have teas for any palate, we were able to find a special brew for even the most conservative tea drinker. It’s something that makes the generic black tea drinker say, ‘Wow, this isn’t anything I’ve ever experienced before.’”

With concoctions like “Gunpowder” green tea, “Bright Montana Morning” herbal, “Cowboy Creamcicle” black, “Cowgirl Confet-tea” rooibos, “Cinnamon Bear” black and the ever-popular “Oh My… Pumpkin Pie!” there was just enough familiarity in the names to pull even non-tea drinkers in for a second look.

After all, Gilpin said with another smile – “this isn’t tea that’s about holding your pinky up.”

Where western tea times began

For a local business to dip their toes into a huge, national vendor pool, it was almost a community effort in the south-central Montana town of 1,700. They offer a variety of more than 50 fine, loose-leaf black, green, white, oolong, pu’erh, herbal, rooibos, flowering and organic teas, in addition to a diverse lineup of tea accessories.

The roots of this unique company are firmly in their western community. The business was born in Gilpin’s garage in November 2009, when her entrepreneurial spirit met with frustration at not being able to find the high-quality types of teas she most enjoyed. And while many – especially customers new to Tumblewood at the Hunter’s Christmas – may think “tea time” is slightly out of place in the western, ranching and outdoors communities, the ladies of Tumblewood Teas know it’s just the right fit. It’s part of the history and heritage of the west, Gilpin explained.

“The pioneers who moved out here – they brought all their stories, histories and tea accessories with them.” While most think of western traditions with cowboys gathering around their campfire with coffee percolating, they continue to discover fascinating stories – many from the women of pioneering families – that center around tea time traditions.

“They were so limited in what they could bring, yet often, it was their tea sets that remained intact,” she says. “After facing all the things they did, working and laboring on the land and in severe elements – that many in the west still face today – to sit down together for a cup of tea was very special.” 

A small-business domino effect

In Sweet Grass County the sights, smells and flavors that have been woven into each of Tumblewood’s loose leaf teas are abundant. Most of their business is conducted on a regional, wholesale level. But now in their sixth year of business, Gilpin and co-owner Laurie Rennie are ready to expand Tumblewood’s reach outside the Big Sky state borders.

“We went (to Las Vegas) in hopes of creating a broader customer base, to gain exposure for Tumblewood, to give our year-end cash flow a boost,” Gilpin said. “It forced us to step up, plan, and make it happen. We’ve been planning for months, working to figure out the logistics, the booth design, the packaging, the inventory, the shipping. This was a huge undertaking for us.”

Rennie, the co-owner and Vice President of Sales, explained preparing for the show in Vegas was almost like a community event – with friends and fellow local business owners cheering them on, offering advice and tracking their adventures in Las Vegas on their company Facebook page – not to mention the added work force to prepare.

“We had to hire people to help us get ready, and now they’re still here!” she laughed.

“It did cause us to realize we were ready to grow – suddenly, we went from one employee to four,” Gilpin added. The small warehouse filled with bins of loose-leaf tea isn’t the only place of employment getting a boost from Tumblewood’s recent growth, either. Some of the most popular items at the Hunter’s Christmas were from their tea accessory line of products, many of which are made especially for Tumblewood by other small, local businesses.

Their wool and leather cozies, created to specially fit the Travelin’ Tumbler tea mugs, are crafted in neighboring Montana counties, and they also sell honey from a Sweet Grass County beehive. The wool cozies are hand-stitched by the rancher who raises the sheep – no two are alike – and the bison leather cozies and their elk, horse or bear leather “stamps” are created and tooled just for Tumblewood.

“So we’re working with all these small businesses, and we all benefit from Tumblewood Teas exposure and marketing,” Rennie said. “This national exposure brings us and them to a whole new audience.”

In the four days of taste-testing and tea talk at the Hunter’s Christmas, the Tumblewood crew sold their products to new customers from at least 25 states, and that’s just tracking those who paid with a credit card and purchased on the show floor.

“That’s big,” Rennie said. “And we know more were directed to our website, so we hope this will boost online sales, too. It provided a great gift niche.”

While they work to expand their online reach and distribution, the core of their business is – and always will be, the small-town women said – found in their rural location.

“That’s what sustains a small community – it’s so enjoyable, as a shopper, to know the people you support. It gives us great pleasure when our community wants to support us,” Rennie said.

They learned a thing or two about their business while in Las Vegas, too, they laughed.

“Yes, you can take a high-quality, loose leaf tea with you, wherever you are,” Gilpin smiled. “And we now know that can include a deer blind!”