One of my favorite aspects of living in Greenville is how close we are to incredible views. About an hour drive north from downtown Greenville off of Highway 11 is Table Rock State Park. If you haven’t been there, you should go. While you’re there go across the road, literally under the shadow of Table Rock, and visit the Table Rock Tea Company.
Steve Lorch is a self-described eclectic serial entrepreneur, originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Jennifer, relocated to Mauldin, South Carolina. Steve is also a medical professional by trade as a surgical nurse.
However, for the past several years, he has been working in medicine part time.
“When I was a surgical nurse in Pennsylvania, I was always on call, always working,” Steve explained. “When we moved down here, I was only 26 and on the verge of have an ulcer. A big part of my life is in my faith, and I knew this is not the way God wanted me to lead me life. You can spend every dime you make but you can’t get your life back.”
Time is worth more than money, and Steve cutting back on his time at “real work” has allowed him to do a lot of things. He’s published three books (working on 2 more), finished a movie script, recorded seven albums, and designed a board game which will be launching on kickstarter.
When Steve says he’s a serial, eclectic entrepreneur, he’s not exaggerating. “I always joked that I ran with scissors and didn’t play well with other children,” Steve said. “I never liked rules. I liked to make the rules.”
Before the Table Rock Tea Company was even a thought in their minds, Steve and Jennifer founded a company called Hydromissions International which did water-well projects all over the world. Incredibly, Steve and Jennifer were processing a thousand projects a year out of their home with no staff. A lot of their work had them traveling across the world. It was during a project in Kenya where they discovered tea plants.
They bought their first tea plant online and put in the ground at their home in Mauldin and let it grow.
“We didn’t think anything of it after we planted it,” Steve said. “It wasn’t until we bought our property at Table Rock when we thought about it again. You see, we have a rule that every plant on our property has to have purpose. It can’t just be ornamental. We’ve been around the world and seen places that use their land so well. We wanted to do the same, and be entirely practical with our gardening.”
He continued, “We were brainstorming of a way we could line our driveway with hedges. We were trying to figure out what kind of hedge could be both be decorative and practical. Then we looked outside and saw our tea plant. It looks like a hedge, so why don’t we do tea? Turns out, we needed 400 of them to line our driveway. So we decided to start a tea company! That’s honestly how we started,” Steve laughed, “we wanted an ornamental hedge row.”
“Before discovering tea in Kenya, we didn’t really even drink tea a whole lot,” Steve said. “That was the first time we were handed single source tea. It was only 90 minutes old.”
Steve went on to explain to me that, while freshness was a big deal, single source tea is also vital to making a high quality tea. I learned that tea, much like wine, is effected by its region. The tea growing in one place could taste completely different than somewhere else because they had a different earth. I learned a lot about tea during my brief time with Steve. And I learned even more once I took a tour at his farm.
“Agriculture tourism is a the bread and butter of our business,” Steve said. “We regularly offer free tours of the fields and facilities. We have volunteers come during planting season. We want Table Rock to be known as Tea Country.”
He continued, “We’ve had a lot of people come through here that decide they want to grow tea… but then they don’t have the means to process the leaves. We’ve worked it out so they buy plants from us, they grow them, and then we buy the leaves from them and processes them. A tea consortium.”
During their hydro mission days, Jennifer wanted to learn how to make soap and pass that along to the women they worked with in Africa. So Jennifer went to the library and checked out a book that taught her how to make soap. Of course, Steve being Steve, “mechanized” his wife’s soap. “We were in a one stall garage in Mauldin, making 700 bars of soap a day for 23 states, sending it to places like Whole Foods.”
“I really like micro-factories, I like things that involve processes, taking them from base ingredients and turning them into a business,” Steve said with a grin, “I’d love to do a tv series called GarageBiz. I’ve got some friends in television I’m trying to pitch that to.”
Steve continued, “There’s a difference between a business person and an entrepreneur. One requires the ability to take a risk, one doesn’t. A lot of people don’t have the stomach for risk. We found that people in developing countries might not have the margins for risk, because sometimes taking risk meant the literal death of your family. That clamps down on entrepreneurialism. So we started Opportunity.org, the charitable micro-enterprise branch of Table Rock Tea Company.”
10% of Steve’s gross revenue with Table Rock Tea Company goes to opportunity.org. Acting as a source for micro-enterprise loans and providing scholarships for farmers and entrepreneurs in developing companies. “That’s a long time down the line,” Steve said, “but we knew we had to set it up from the beginning. Once we are are up and running, we would buy their tea from them. This is the long stretching vision for Table Rock Tea Company.”
“The first four years have been proof of concept,” Steve said. “When growing tea, you have to check several boxes off first. One, is the plant going to grow at all. Two, is it going to reproduce. Three, is the tea going to taste any good, and you won’t know that for 3 or 4 years. Last year we made our first real tea and were finally able to check all of those boxes yes. This is when we built a commercial green house and planted our first 3000 plants. We’ll be planting 1 to 2 acres a year, with roughly 4300 plants per acre.”
He continued, “I don’t get swayed by money, it’s just not a motivator. We’ve been a company for 4 years now, and it’ll be a decade before bleeding stops. That’s just how the tea industry works, it’ll take a long time. With Table Rock Tea Company, this is the first time I’ve wanted it to be a financially successful business. I want it to be able to provide jobs for people. In order to do that it has to be commercially viable for many years down the road.”
“I start things because I’m passionate about what it is, Steve said. “I’m one of those crazy people that believes I can change the world. In this case, Table Rock Tea Company is trying to change a region. If we can successfully turn Table Rock into ‘Tea Country’ that will provide a ton of jobs.”
Steve hopes to open a cafe right off of Highway 11. With 400,000 people going to the state park a year, it’s certain to be a hit.