Building a business isn’t easy, especially during a pandemic. But what happens when there are other major setbacks that threaten to derail an owner’s hard work? Jessica Graves, owner of Una Biologicals, and Danielle Spinola, owner of Abeille Voyante Tea Co., recently had to figure out how to keep their doors open while dealing with devastating changes.
In March 2021, almost a year to the day that Una Biologicals was forced to close because of the pandemic, a neighboring pizza shop caught fire, filling the beauty and wellness boutique with smoke.
“We tried to air it out, but there was so much smoke damage that, because of the nature of the products we sell, it was a total loss,” explained founder Jessica Graves. “We literally had to throw away almost everything because we make organic products for people with sensitive skin; when the exterior of the product is coated with carcinogenic smoke, there’s a real liability issue there.
“Unfortunately, while our insurance company was great and johnny-on-the-spot, we ran into insurance issues on the building, which didn’t belong to us,” she added. “We ended up not being able to get approval to clean the walls and floors, so we had to move.”
Looking for a new space, Graves posted the news in Una Biological’s client newsletter. Not only did she find a wealth of support from customers that she’d been serving for the past 15 years—she also found a new building.
“A client emailed us saying that they had a building on Butler Street and were moving to Florida,” said Graves. “So we took two of their three floors, and now serve as stewards of the building. We love that our landlord is part of our Una family.”
Customers are not only flocking to the new store at 3707 Butler Street, but helped to keep the business afloat through all of the changes.
“Pittsburgh is so great; we like to show up for our neighbors,” said Graves. “Our clients are just phenomenal; they sent us letters of support, and signed up for subscription boxes and purchased products online to help us generate money to stay open.”
Graves was able to keep her staff during the move, which was especially important to her following the pandemic. “We were lucky in that the fire happened on a Thursday, and the previous Monday we had moved all of our manufacturing out of the Lawrenceville location into a new warehouse in Homewood,” she said. “It was such a huge blessing that all of our ingredients, raw materials and containers were not affected by the fire.
“We brought a lot of our staff into this ‘Herbal Headquarters’ and put them to work setting up the area, making labels or doing whatever was needed to make sure they didn’t lose any hours,” Graves continued, noting that they needed to remake all of the product that was lost. “Thankfully our staff was amazing and rallied to the cause.”
While no one wants to undergo such an ordeal, Graves said that she takes heart from the experience.
“The fire made me evaluate where we are as a company and where I am as a person, and what things I needed to change and update,” said Graves. “The outpouring of love from our customers also reminded me of what a supportive community we have. When I’m having a bad day and wonder if I’m supposed to be doing this, I hear from someone who appreciates our products or services, and that changes the game. I take heart from that and pay it forward.”
Danielle Spinola opened Tupelo Honey Tea (now Abeille Voyante Tea Co.) in Millvale in 2007. The former name of the looseleaf tea company, which has since grown into a community tea shop with a vegan café, resounded with the entrepreneur.
“In 2002, I had a great tea in a Jade Buddhist temple in Shanghai, and fell in love with the idea of introducing Pittsburgh to non-English style tea,” she explained. “When I was playing with different names, I’d always liked the song Tupelo Honey and the line, ‘You can take all the tea in China, put it in a big brown bag for me,’ and I loved the idea of selling the tea in brown bags.
“My nickname as a child was Bee, so I also wanted some kind of connection there,” she added.
Three weeks before her business reopened following the pandemic, Spinola received notification from Tupelo Honey restaurant, which was moving into the area, that she was in violation of their trademark. “I didn’t think it was similar enough of a business for it to be an issue, but their lawyers thought that it was,” she said.
The company offered her a chance to lease the name from them, but numerous stipulations, including that her business become a subset of theirs, prevented Spinola from agreeing. “As a female entrepreneur, I didn’t get into this to become the subsidiary of something else,” she explained.
Spinola spent two months searching for a new name and continually ran into trademark issues.
“Every time I thought I had something, I’d send it to the lawyers, and they’d send me back a list of things that were too similar,” she said. “When nothing conflicted with Abeille Voyante, I said, ‘Put a pin in it, I’m done.’”
Abeille in French means bee, and ‘voyante’ means to see into the future, or to use intuition. “I love everything Francophile, and the name fit our kind of apothecary feel, since we blend everything here using our knowledge and intuition,” she said.
However, rebranding a 15-year-old company is anything but easy.
“It’s been exhausting and soul-breaking and horrible, to be honest,” said Spinola. “You don’t realize what it’s like to uproot everything you’ve been doing. Right now, I’m in the process of ordering thousands of dollars in labels because I have to relabel 150 teas. I just hired someone to come in and photograph all of our teas for a new website. You just can’t stop the Titanic on a dime.”
Spinola’s new website launched in April, and she’s also letting customers know via social media about the name change.
“I thought the pandemic was stressful, but it has nothing on this,” she said, adding that printer she originally hired for labels went out of business, making her have to start again from square one. “It feels horrible when someone walks in and rips something out from underneath you that you spent so much time and energy building.
“I do thank the community and our customers for supporting us,” she added. “We’re looking forward to seeing everyone on the patio again when the weather gets nice, and we’ve got some great events in the works including a block party on Thursday nights with other businesses on the block. Come by for an iced tea and a little nosh.”