WORDS BY CAT KERR
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MD HOUSTON
As he sought to enhance various aspects of his life, including the body, mind, soul, and spirit, Wayne Ashford’s exploratory journey led him to discover the transformative power of tea. Motivated by a desire to experience and promote the health benefits of this beverage, he has dedicated over three decades to the tea industry. In the late 1990s, he embarked on his tea venture by establishing an online retail company, and a few years later, he took the next step by opening his first physical tea shop in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.
Wayne often talks about living with purpose. So after a thorough analysis, he chose Savannah, Georgia, US, as the place where he would live out his purpose in the next phase of life as he grew into his 60s. In this historic Southern city on the Atlantic coast — a contrasting environment from the Midwest where he spent much of his life before — he owns and operates Ashford Tea, which has become a destination for locals and tourists alike.
What was it about Savannah that led you to recognise this was where you could live the purposeful life you wanted?
Indianapolis really got to the point where it had outgrown me. I wanted to slow things down. I wanted to be in a place where I didn’t need a car, a place that was near water, a place that was very cosy, a place where I could really be outside more. But one of my requirements was: I did not want to be in the eye of any storm. It came down between two locations: Charleston and Savannah. Charleston hit all the major boxes except one, and that was the one about being in the eye of the storm. Savannah hit all the boxes, so I moved here, and the rest is history.
How do you think Savannah’s culture, and the slower atmosphere you described, make it a good place for a tea shop?
If you look at it from just a strictly business perspective, the tourist culture here in Savannah aligns itself very well with tea. Most of the people coming to Savannah are looking for experiences. So I like to think that Ashford Tea gives you a great experience when it comes to educating, introducing, and talking about tea, and infusing that with your overall individual journey. Most of them, because they’re tourists, are on some type of journey. They are here to discover. So that lends itself very well to the root of what tea is. And then also with that, a slower pace, taking your time, understanding how to move through the city when the weather is super hot, and understanding these Southern roots. It’s a different type of culture from cultures in bigger cities elsewhere. I thought, these are all the elements of what drinking tea is. It fits right in.
In your shop, you offer numerous unique teas that can foster the kind of memorable experience you’re talking about, but the Kenyan purple teas in particular stood out to me. What do you like about purple tea?
About 40 years ago, Kenya was trying to develop their own unique product from the tea plant. So I started doing some research and following what was going on. I really wanted to get my hands on it as soon as it was going to be available, which I finally managed in 2016. It blew my mind — I had never tasted anything like it. Some tea experts would differ with me, but I think [with purple tea] you’re able to experience the black teas, the wulong teas, and the green teas in one. That’s the uniqueness of it, along with the reddish purple colour. You can squirt a little lemon in your cup and it will turn an even deeper purple.
But I didn’t really know what to do with it. And I didn’t know who would appreciate it, outside of tea enthusiasts. So I just kind of had it in my private stock, and I would drink it occasionally when I felt like having a different experience from what I’d been doing.
I never really talked about purple tea when I was experiencing it initially, but then when I moved here to Savannah, a museum reached out to me because they were looking for an exclusive tea that represented Africa to sell in their gift shop. And I said, “Boom! I have the perfect tea for you.”
When tea enthusiasts come in and see purple tea, that’s what they want to talk about. It drives a great conversation with my guests.
Why was the museum specifically looking for a tea to represent Africa?
It’s called the Beach Institute, and it was the first Black African American school here in Savannah. Now it’s an African American cultural centre where they cover all the arts from the African diaspora. But I’m not really doing it much justice — you have to see it to embrace it. But it’s a beautiful building on the eastside of historic downtown.
You’ve had some spoken word events at the shop, you collaborated with a health equity initiative a few years ago, and you have this relationship with the Beach Institute. With all of these connections in mind, how do you think of Ashford Tea as a support system for the Black community in Savannah?
That’s a complex question, and I want to make sure that I give the energy needed for it. Once I understood the health benefits from drinking tea — all the things it does with its antioxidants and polyphenols, amino acids, and great compounds; how it helps us age better — I wanted to introduce it to my community. That was super important. Because from research, we know the Black community is the unhealthiest group in the United States. We deal with a lot of ailments. And tea is the one beverage that continues to help us manage or lower the percentage of these ailments that we deal with. It’s a superfood; it’s a ‘superdrink.’
And not just the Black community. I learned this is the American community: For the most part, we lead the world in numerous ailments. So I wanted to bring tea initially to my Black community — and still, that’s the focus because we’re the ones who are disproportionately affected — but it was important to the community as a whole; to bring it to everyone.
I also realised that when you feel like you are purposely putting in the effort to be a better you, it allows you to connect better with others. Once you become more conscientious of taking care of yourself, that spills over into the community and everything you touch. And because you’re so conscious about taking care of yourself, you become conscious in understanding and taking care of others. The key to fortifying great communities is coming together to make those things happen. It doesn’t matter where you come from, but how you fortify ‘self’ to empower the communities you love. It has to start with you, I believe.
With 30 years of experience in this industry, you surely have a lot of wisdom to share. What is some advice you would give someone who is just starting out?
In any business, you have to make dollars and cents to make it work. But in the past, I was more conscientious about the numbers I had to reach to continue to make a living, instead of focusing on the people I was meeting who were helping me make those dollars. It didn’t take me very long to realise the dollars and cents only become available to you when you understand who you are, and when you understand the people you talk to every day. So it became important to me to meet people where they were, and not worry about where I wanted to be. Because I met them where they were, that positioned me to pursue my goals too. That’s been the true beauty of it.
You have this vision for a healthier Savannah, and you’re doing what you can to contribute to that with Ashford Tea Company. What do you think it will take for the community to grow on this health journey together?
Well, there’s no single way for healthy growth to happen. But Ashford Tea Company believes the individual members of the communities can recognise their value when they create an action plan to improve one aspect of the formula: a quality health and wellness lifestyle. We believe this creates accountability for their own well-being, while improving their confidence to be socially involved and participate in what’s happening around them.