Spill the Tea: Atlanta-based Tearoom just add honey Welcomes Conversation and Cultivates Community

UPDATED: May 16, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 3, 2024
Portrait of Brandi Shelton owner of just add honey

In a time before Starbucks and independent coffee shops popped up on every street corner, Brandi Shelton found herself connecting with her hometown of Atlanta and destinations around the world through tearooms.

“I loved to travel, and I drank tea; I found it to be a great connector when I was traveling,” says Shelton, a wardrobe and prop stylist. “It was just something I enjoyed.”

Though she registered the company name just add honey in 2003, it took a few years for her to build upon the idea. Like many entrepreneurs, Shelton’s business began as an experiment in her home.

Brandi Shelton’s calling for tea

In the mid-2000s, after her mother passed away from breast cancer, Shelton bought her first home. Looking for a way to cope with the loss of her mother and inspired by the tearooms she visited locally and on her travels, she began mixing and blending teas she bought at local herb shops and gourmet grocers.

“I have an engineering background, so math is huge for me,” says Shelton. “I love the endless combinations of tea and that they can create a mood or take you out of one. I enjoy doing the math and mixing and matching one part of this and two parts of that—[the tea blend] tastes completely different with varying ratios.”

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Not long after she began blending her teas, Shelton taught herself calligraphy to make her own labels and create packaging; she also hired a designer to build a website.

After talking with a friend and colleague, Shelton learned about a local makers and doers market. That conversation coincided with someone asking to buy some of her tea blends, and she realized, “OK, so I really do have a business.”

“I was launching this company, but I did not tell one person about it,” she recalls. She officially started her business in 2006.

Getting started and building momentum for just add honey

In August 2006, with a basement full of materials and teas, she joined Beehive Co-op, now known as the beehive.  

“I started with four blends, and from there, I started doing markets,” says Shelton, who learned about more selling opportunities from the other women in the co-op community.

Shelton extended that sense of community to her house.

“I thought I would plant a community garden and teach kids about herbs, osmosis and where tea comes from,” she explains. “I had all these ideas of what tea would do, and it was just fun.”

In 2014, while continuing to work as a wardrobe and prop stylist, Shelton opened her first just add honey brick-and-mortar shop. To entice investors to the then-overlooked Sweet Auburn neighborhood, an economic development organization offered $500 grants and three months of free rent to would-be business owners who wanted to open a retail location there.

Shelton applied for the grant and was offered a location.

“I applied, and they offered me a store, but I said, ‘That’s not actually what I want. Thank you,’” she remembers. “I turned down the grant because I didn’t like the location. I thought it was a great opportunity but not worth the time, so I moved on with my life.”

Shortly thereafter and now married, Shelton and her husband were in San Diego taking hang gliding lessons when she received a call. The grantors said they had found another space: “It’s exactly what you want, but you have to be open within a week.”

“A trip to IKEA and a couple of Coronas later, we were open,” Shelton says with a laugh. “And it was exactly what I wanted; it was a great experience.”

Her passion for tea and community continues to grow

When the initial three free months of rent ended, Shelton decided to keep going. This year marks 10 years in brick-and-mortar retail for just add honey. In the years following the first shop opening, she added new locations and pop-ups around Atlanta, including a tearoom in the museum where she and her husband were married.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shelton closed several locations and focused on expanding production, specifically online sales, wholesale offerings and her work with partners.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Shelton launched just add honey. Her passion remains, and she continues to cultivate a sense of community

“I still love it, and I still have a passion for it, and that shows in the way we blend our teas, the ingredients we use, how we talk about it and who we hire,” she says.

Shelton is proud of just add honey’s hiring and retention program, explaining that one of her main ideals is to foster a space in which everyone feels welcome, from her team in the tearoom to the vendors she represents. To ensure that representation, she and her team follow a vendor checklist when considering new products to bring into the retail café, focusing on female-, LGBTQ+-, BIPOC- and veteran-owned independent businesses.

“We aim to be good stewards of the responsibility we have,” says Shelton. 

To that end, two years ago she implemented a program at just add honey that donates 1% of all sales to nonprofit organizations of the employees’ choosing; a different nonprofit benefits each month.

What the future holds for just add honey—and Brandi Shelton

Not one to rest on her laurels, Shelton is opening a second tearoom this spring, right across the street from the retail café. 

“It’s a completely different concept,” she says of the new space. “It has a little bamboo garden and a koi pond, so it’s more Zen-like than the one we have now, which I refer to as Teavana with tables.” 

The new tearoom, tentatively called Bambō House, can be rented out in its entirety and will offer community classes. Shelton is also implementing “Silent Tuesdays,” during which people can come in, drink their tea, and enjoy the space in complete silence.

“I’m 46, and these are things I wish I had for myself in my twenties that I didn’t know I needed; they’re also the things that I want now in my forties,” Shelton explains about her concept for Bambō House. “It’s a nice little whoosah as we transition back to the hustle and bustle of life. You have this one little reprieve you can spend a moment or all day in if you want to.”

“The first several years of business are like half doggy paddling, half underwater,” she explains. “But now that I can breathe, I realize [just add honey] has really been an outlet for me. Tea has endless possibilities.”

Photo courtesy of just add honey