Family traditions steeped in tea culture lead to new business venture for Marla Lacey
After 20-plus years in corporate banking, Marla Lacey, now owner of MaraBette & Co Tea & Hospitality, decided it was time to do something else. She found the answer in tea leaves.
“There’s got to be something else I can do. I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” she remembers thinking. She found her “something else” steeped in her family’s decades of tea drinking.
“My family and I have always been a big tea drinking family,” she says. “Tea was not an unfamiliar thing at all. Hot tea, iced tea, sun tea, we like tea.”
Lacey’s parents were gracious hosts and there were always parties with some sort of tea. “As I got older, we really started going in on the love for afternoon tea,” Lacey says. “We would travel around, going to tea houses.”
They would travel with the sole purpose of visiting tea houses, which led to starting a tea club. “We really just loved to talk and drink tea,” she says. “Tea was never this abstract idea. I was always drinking it.”
She launched MaraBette & Co Tea & Hospitality in 2016 to bring back the simplicity and the art of afternoon tea.
“Tea, if you look at it from the English standpoint, you hear a lot about afternoon tea,” Lacey says. “Come to find out, tea is about a pause in the day to connect with whomever you’re with. The day will still be here when we get done. Tea has this ability to calm you. Tea is for connecting or reflecting.”
She began sourcing tea leaves to create her own blends—like Gather Round (black tea, rooibos tea, spices, caramel, and pumpkin) and Friends n’ Neighbors (dark chocolate chips, hazelnut, maté). “I wanted it to come from its natural habitat, where the people who are harvesting it, they know it like the back of their hand—what to do, what to look for from the soil to the air,” she says.
In addition to dozens of unique blends she sells at local farmers markets and online, Lacey has created quarterly ticketed tea experiences to introduce Greenville to afternoon tea culture. They sell out each time. Eventually, she plans to own a brick-and-mortar location that will host afternoon tea daily.
“There is a huge tea following in the area,” she says. “People are looking for the time-honored moments, and it gives them permission to dress up or sit around with a friend and enjoy the tea.”
What’s in a name?
Marla Lacey creates her unique tea blends by working backwards. “I start with a name first,” she says. “Every name is going to reflect home or hospitality.”
Then she takes the name to a literal drawing board, or as she calls it, her “blending board,” which looks like a jumbled mess with lines circles and arrows, she says. She leads herself through a series of questions:
What does this name feel like? How does that feel? How does it make someone else feel? What kind of base do I want (black, white, green, herbal)? And finally, what do I add to it to convey this?
Then it’s time for taste-testing and playing with ratios. “A lot becomes hands-on at that point,” she says. Sometimes the blends aren’t quite right and the name and ratios get tabled for two years. Two years later, the right ratio or flavor component might resurface to make the blend a reality.
“I don’t want to recreate something that already exists,” she says.
For tea blends, upcoming tea parties, and more, go to marabetteteas.com.