By Seth Daniel
The former Sorelle’s location off of Main Street is about to be occupied by an exciting and innovative cold brew tea bar, and it’s in no small part due to the cooperation of a unique loan program that’s part of the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and directed by native Townie Bill Nickerson.
Tea Bar by Evy, owned by Evy Chen, will locate in the former Sorelle’s space and hopes to open by the end of June. The cold brew tea company, with one location in Jamaica Plain and a robust wholesale operation (with bottles sold in Whole Food and other retail outlets), is expanding for the first time to Charlestown and with the help of the Boston Local Development Corporation (BLDC), which is actively seeking out small businesses like Chen’s that it might be able to help.
“The minute I found the Charlestown location, it felt right,” said Chen this week from her JP store. “Charlestown is a strong neighborhood. People know each other and people stay there for a long time. Even when I was outside looking at the location, people approached me and were friendly and wondered if I was doing something there. It’s going to be a good fit for us.
“Bill at the BLDC has been so wonderful in helping us,” she continued. “It goes beyond the money. A lot of times it can be help in accessing something else too. Bill has been very wonderful to help us understand our location and find more help. His program has been able to help us put roots down in Charlestown. That has been extremely helpful.”
Nickerson said the BLDC closed on a $50,000 loan with Chen to help in the renovations, but they have had their eye on them for some time. He said he was more than happy to help a young entrepreneur in his home neighborhood, where over the last 20 years he has struggled to find borrowers.
“I bought into their cold brew tea product right off the bat,” he said. “I had been wanting to do something with them for a long time, but nothing made sense until now. When they came to us with the Charlestown location, we were excited to do something. They have a really good idea and they’ve really brought it together. They are doing a tiered retail strategy and have a wholesale strategy and now, the tea bars. They’re really going places with this.
“We see them as a long-term jobs creator as they expand their production,” he continued. “The product is there for them to start spinning off a lot of jobs as they grow – making this a force multiplier.”
For Nickerson, who grew up in the Town and has a lot of family still here, he was excited to see something like this come in next to the old Donovan’s Soda Fountain. He said he remembered getting Vanilla Cokes in there as a kid and noting that it was like being in an old movie.
But the story doesn’t stop with tea bars.
Nickerson has been at the helm of the BLDC for quite some time and it was founded in 1982 with federal and state money. Very little money is added to the fund, Nickerson basically recycles what he calls “ancient” money. The key for the BLDC is to create jobs by filling gaps and leveraging larger amounts of money. He said that while the BLDC has made $15 million in loans since 1982, it has leveraged $85 million in other financing – making it what he calls a “gap filler” for small businesses like Chen’s.
“We try to spread out our money because we’re trying to leverage other money,” he said. “We’re usually brining a lot of other money to the table. That’s good for long-term relationships for the businesses with the banks. So, we can spread out our money to more businesses and help more people.”
However, all of that action slowed down after the recession of 2008, when banks were hesitant to loan money to anyone and were basically in panic mode. No longer was Nickerson’s program as effective because there wasn’t much money to leverage from other sources.
Now, he said, that trend is turning and he’s actually out looking for existing businesses or new businesses that may be a good candidate for BLDC loans.
“I’m starting to see more interest and more things in my pipeline,” he said. “I’m actually pursuing projects and looking for borrowers…We have tons of flexibility within the conversation…It’s not that a situation where we look at a credit score and that’s it. As a former banker, I’m one who actually still reads a credit report rather than just looks at the credit score number.”
The price of the loan is the same as a regular bank, he said, and money has to be paid back just like at a bank. However, he said that his board – which is made up of a very active group of leaders in the Boston business community – is ready to take chances.
“We’re looking to see growing businesses that need to take that next step,” he said. “They go to a bank and the bank needs to see the company continue the growth for two more years before they’ll do anything. That’s where sometimes we can step in help them continue until the bank is ready…At the end of the day, our goal is not to increase profits for stockholders, but really just to improve the City of Boston.”
For Chen, expanding into Charlestown – building upon her retail business to complement sales in supermarkets and on-tap cold brew tea products at institutions and schools – is just a dream come true for an idea that was generated in an entrepreneurial class at Emerson College.
After winning a contest there as a student, she organized herself in 2012 and used her knowledge of cold brew tea from growing up in China to launch the company. Since that time, Cold Brew Evy Tea in supermarkets has taken off and Evy Tea on Tap has been successful. Since launching one year ago with her first tea bar in JP, things have only gone up.
She said they are one of the first companies to seize upon the cold brew tea industry, which is still relatively new compared to the booming cold brew coffee products.
“We’re really blessed and can’t wait to open,” said Chen. “When I come in to the Charlestown space, people will stop in and ask what’s going on and be excited for us. The old owners even stopped by. Everyone is excited for us and neighbors want to meet us. That’s a great start.”
She said they are planning an official Grand Opening in early July for the store.