Tea & tips

Posted April 21, 2009, at 4:38 p.m.

Lisa Liberatore of Gardiner, founder of Baxter Tea Co., surveys a group of 27 University of Maine students and staff with a playful grin. Dressed in a casual black suit with pink trim, she easily pulls off a look of lighthearted professionalism. Mischievously, she announces, “Right now is the best time to start a business.”

The statement is met by puzzled expressions from the crowd, mostly made up of business majors, tea enthusiasts and hunters of free food. Indeed, it seems like strange advice in a nation limping through a recession. For Liberatore, however, whose small business has thrived during the economic downturn, the comment makes sense.

She elaborates by saying that corporations are losing some of the dominance they once had as consumers increasingly turn to local venues, and Liberatore’s larger message begins to take shape: There is hope.

This on-campus meeting in Orono, called Tea 101, was a part of the Foster Student Innovation Center’s Snack & Yack series, which invites local innovators and entrepreneurs to provide information and inspiration. Free food is part of the enticement, and this recent session treated attendees to teacakes as well as sample beverages from Baxter Tea.

Born in Bangor, Liberatore was 10 years old when she came up with the name for her company. After spending a rainy day enthralled by a book about former Gov. Percival Baxter, who donated more than 200,000 acres of land to the state for the park that bears his name, she decided the name “Baxter” would be involved if she ever started a company.

“I think [Baxter’s story] is absolutely amazing,” said Liberatore, who’s now 29 and admits, “I’m kind of a tree hugger.”

Despite her early capitalistic aspirations, it seemed like she was headed down a different path. She graduated from UMaine with a master’s degree in education, and thought the fast-paced life of recruiting for higher education would be a good fit for her skills and extroverted personality. But she was miserable, she said, and after two years, made the painful decision to leave what she thought had been her calling.

Liberatore decided she’d explore e-commerce by selling exotic iced teas on Amazon.com. She had created an image, devised a marketing strategy and even located a distributor until she logged on to the site one day to find the gourmet beverage section had been discontinued. Undaunted, she made her own Web site and expanded her selection of products.

In 2007, she created Baxter Tea Co. Consumers didn’t warm to the endeavor at first. Business was so slow, in fact, she became a nanny to 2-year-old twins to secure a reliable income.

“[The twins] napped for a few hours every day; that’s when I would work on my Web site,” said Liberatore. “And even when I was playing with them, I was always thinking of Baxter Tea.”

After two years, Libertore’s labor and perseverance was rewarded with a lucrative business of serving customers from the star-studded streets of Hollywood to the frigid haunts of Quebec, Canada. Her site offers more than 250 products, including exotic teas and coffees and tea accessories, such as mugs handmade in Maine.

Deb Neuman, director of student services at the Foster Center, said that Baxter Tea employs strategies that have helped many small Maine ventures find their niches: personal attention to customers, high-quality merchandise and cross-marketing.

Liberatore watches what her competitors are doing, then takes it further. Her mantra: “I can do that, and I can do it better. Watch me.”

Liberatore includes a handwritten thank-you note with every online purchase and she crafts her gourmet blends herself. Her cross-marketing efforts are extensive, from “Tea & Bling” parties with a local jeweler to offering sweets made by the Bangor-based Indulgente bakery when she does events such as Tea 101. She even delivers. On her way to UMaine, she stopped by the houses of five customers who wanted her products, but were reluctant to pay shipping.

“Lisa shows that innovation and entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be about a completely new product,” said Neuman, who is a friend of Liberatore’s. “Tea isn’t a new thing, but she has given it a new spin, new package, new personality and new products.”

Liberatore’s most successful business strategy? Giving stuff away, as often as she can. “I am cheap,” she said, laughing, “so that’s difficult for me.” But she found her business really took off after she started giving her products away to sampling companies, at events and to faithful customers.

Liberatore wants to open a storefront in Gardiner for more local exposure and to offer customers access to her products without shipping fees.

After the UMaine event, Jeffrey Hake, a horticulture major who has become UMaine’s celebrity expert on all things tea since he began writing a column for The Maine Campus newspaper about the beverage in February 2008, said, “I was impressed. [The company] is extremely professional.” He said that although he prefers strong black teas without additional flavorings, he thought Liberatore’s Duchess Grey blend was “quite good.”

Hake said he plans to involve Liberatore in his future on-campus tea tasting.

True to form, Liberatore ended Tea 101 with a drawing for a basket and several bags of tea. The winners, including Hake, gleefully accepted their prizes before dissolving out of the Foster Center with their peers, leaving Liberatore with a plate of cookie crumbs and a smile that seemed just a little bit wider. What she gave them is harder to discern, but a clear message emerged: Maybe things aren’t so bleak after all.

For more information on Baxter Tea Co. and its products, visit www.baxtertea.com.

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