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Indigenous Leaders: Unique tea blends steeped in childhood memories

As popularity grows, expansion is on the horizon for Paul Owl's Treeteas Brewing Co.

You don’t need a million dollars to start a successful business.

That’s the message from Paul Owl, the entrepreneur behind Treeteas Brewing Co., as he prepares to address some of the province’s top players in the tourism industry at the Ontario Tourism Summit in Huntsville on Oct. 25-26.

But it helps to have a pretty good story.

Owl, a member of Serpent River First Nation, said he began brewing cedar teas with nothing more than a pot, a burner and a box of mason jars, gathering cedar in his backyard and boiling it down on top of his stove.

He wasn’t intending to start a whole new product line, but the universe had other plans.

“Cedar tea was always something that used to be around when I was a kid,” Owl said. “I remember, you’d go to a friend's house and their grandparents would be boiling cedar on the stovetop.”

“The smell was so strong, it felt like you were being healed with every sip,” he said.

Owl describes the flavour of Treeteas — and he admits it’s hard to describe — as a “walk in the forest that clears your head. It’s like rubbing cedar in your hands… it’s beautiful.” 

Once the popularity of his homemade drinks began to spread — first through word of mouth, then an enthusiastic response at powwows — Owl began to experiment with the tea’s flavours, adding blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. 

Soon, as demand for the drinks skyrocketed, Treeteas — along with the tagline “a ceremony in every sip” — was born.

But he cautions people — especially young Indigenous entrepreneurs — from thinking there’s some kind of magic formula involved in turning an idea into a thriving company.

A little bit of luck, and a lot of hard work is what can set any budding businessperson apart. 

“At the end of the day, look in that forest behind your house,” Owl said. “There's all kinds of roots, barks, leaves out there. There's all kinds of flavouring products out there that's free for us to harvest and turn into a business.”

“You don't need the production facility. You don't need a big building,” Owl said. “The only thing you need to do is go out there and get it.”

Owl came by his penchant for marketing honestly — he earned his stripes selling Xerox copiers, flavoured cigars and credit cards in small gas stations and grocery stores from Thunder Bay to Six Nations.

Through that, Owl built networks, mapped the routes, and honed his marketing skills. It’s allowed him to spot a good sales pitch when he sees one: Treeteas is a play on “treaties,” a bit of comedy that elicits a laugh from Owl if it’s brought up.

“When I first started making tea in mason jars, I used to have one of the cedar sprigs in every jar,” he said. “When people bought the jar, they could see the cedar, swirl it around. We even had people that used to chew on the cedar after they were done drinking the jar.”

“So we would tell people to take a picture of the cedar at the bottom of your jar when they're done, and we'll give you a reading,” he said. “So people were sending us photos of their empty jars with the cedar in it, and we would give them a nice saying or something, like a fortune cookie.”

Owl even sees the humour — and marketing potential — of an unfortunate situation. Once, after a loaded crate of mason jars slipped and fell, crashing to the ground, cracking a full load of Treeteas, Owl stopped his crew from cleaning the mess until he first snapped a photo.

“We took a picture of it and we posted it online, saying ‘no one likes a broken treaty.’”

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Another unique feature of Treeteas is the artwork on every can. They’ve helped expose Indigenous artists, like Rhonda Snow, to larger audiences.

“When you go into a store and you look on the shelves, it's all labels that are front and centre and the artwork is second,” Owl said. “When we go on store shelves now, you see the artwork first. That's what catches the eye.”

Owl added that he’s making sure that as the product extends into western provinces and further territories, artists from that region are featured on the product. 

“We’ve got to give respect to people within that province,” Owl said. “If we're in Saskatchewan or Alberta, we find an artist out there, and we work with them to create the labelling for the cans for those specific provinces.”

But reflecting local art goes beyond a marketing strategy, Owl said. 

“We're respecting the territory we're in,” he said. “And to give respect to that territory where we’re going to be doing business.”

So far, Treeteas — led by a cedar-infused wildberry chai drink —  has caught on with Indigenous-owned businesses, leading to an increase in the number of cans shipped in every batch.

He counts 44 stores — mostly smaller, mom-and-pop grocery stores and gas stations — as his prime market. Owl said the next truck with Treeteas is already fully loaded with 126,000 cans, ready for distribution. 

Despite the success, Owl said he still likes the day-to-day hustle of meeting people, knocking on doors, and selling his product.

“I’ve got a trailer where I can hold 220 cases, but it's really expensive to drive that around,” he said. “So I put about 80 cases in the back of my truck, and I go and just drive.”

“I head out to the stores, knocking on doors, just as old-school as you can imagine.”

Owl estimates that on a recent run to drop off 10 cases of Treeteas for a customer, he hit up every gas station and convenience store from Elliot Lake to Thunder Bay. He estimates that he secured at least 30 new customers with that approach.

And hard work has a way of creating its own good fortune.

After a chance encounter in Ottawa with a government official — and a brief Treeteas sales pitch — Owl said he received a phone call from the Israeli Embassy. 

“I got a call… it was the Israeli Minister of Trade, and he said ‘I had a friend tell me about you, in Ottawa.’”

That minister then connected Owl with an importer, who regularly ships sea crates of Canadian products overseas.

“And now we're getting ready to send samples out there to them. And they're looking to purchase for Israel, Europe and the United States,” Owl said.

But before he makes preparations to establish Treeteas in global markets, Owl said he’s readying himself for October’s presentation to the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.

It will be a big crowd at the conference, crammed with industry bigwigs and entrepreneurs looking to make an impression on tourists as Canada eases itself out of pandemic restrictions and tourism looks for a rebound.

But despite the pressure of appearing before the crowd — and a short 10-minute window to give his presentation — Owl said he’s not worried. He’s not even going to over-prepare any lengthy speeches or motivational talks.

He’ll keep it down to a simple story of how he gathered cedar in his backyard back in Serpent River, boiled sprigs on the stove of his grandparents’ home, and drank it alongside good friends at a ceremonial powwow.

“After building the story in their mind of who you are, and what you do, you're already hitting those senses,” Owl said.

“Before they taste it, and then when they taste it, everything just rounds out, the story makes sense. The jokes make sense. And then the flavour makes sense.”