Before Souzan Gerami moved to the St. Louis area in 2000, she’d never made tea using store-bought tea bags. Gerami, who was born in Germany and grew up in Iran, was used to sipping loose-leaf teas, even in the hottest months of the year, and was disappointed with what lined most local grocery store shelves in the U.S.
“I was exploring tea bags, so I used a lot of different types,” she says. “I never got that feeling of a home brewed, good tea out of tea bags.”
Richer flavor was only one piece of the puzzle for Gerami. She found that some premium tea brands produced tea bags using plastic. On top of that, 50 billion takeaway cups end up in landfills each year, and only one in 400 are recycled.
Enter TeaVoila. Launched in 2021, Gerami has created compostable cups that come with loose-leaf tea in a built-in infuser that can be used up to three times. The eco-friendly cups also solve a functional problem for busy tea drinks: Brewing loose-leaf tea can be time consuming and often requires special tools.
To brew tea in TeaVoila’s cups, you simply fill a cup with a ¼ cup of hot water, swirl to brew, and top with more hot water. You can refill when the liquid is almost gone up to three times, giving you three cups of tea in one. The plant-based filters prevent the tea from over-steeping — meaning no more bitter brews.
Gerami was traveling overseas when she came across a slightly similar product, and soon after, developed the idea of a disposable cup with a built-in infuser for the U.S. market. Crucially, the infuser keeps the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, unlike bottles with infusers at the top.
“You don’t have to measure the tea. You don’t have to worry about it. When the (tea) is on the top, then it gets bitter,” Gerami explains. “But when it’s at the bottom of the cup, the bitterness stays at the bottom and doesn’t go into the whole drink.”
Gerami then began testing designs and looking for a manufacturer. She wanted to produce her cups stateside but found it was prohibitively expensive. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, TeaVoila produced its first cups in 2022. With a minimal budget, Gerami got the word out on social media, posting on Reddit tea threads and in tea-focused Facebook groups.
One non-negotiable feature for Gerami was composability: The cups can break down naturally with the help of bacteria and other organisms without leaving toxicity in the soil, resulting in a lower carbon footprint.
“To not have a (carbon) footprint like plastic, I took that very seriously. The (manufacturer) was offering to put tape on the box, and I said no, I don’t want any plastic, not even tape, so they did a different seal. I try to be as eco-friendly as possible,” Gerami says.
But TeaVoila’s mission is not just environmental. Every purchase includes a donation to the Omid Foundation, a non-profit founded by a fellow Iranian expat. Gerami first learned of the organization when her daughter interned there in high school, and visited the facility herself to see the work firsthand.
According to its mission, the Omid Foundation “strengthens the emotional and life-skills capabilities of marginalized adolescent girls and young women, in order to remove barriers to education, provide access to opportunities, and facilitate their integration into society.”
“I cannot describe how much this organization is helping young abuse (survivors). It’s the worst case you could have imagined, what those kids have been through,” she says. “The way they took care of those girls was just amazing to me.”
Today, Gerami operates TeaVoila out of her Wildwood home. Exciting things are on the horizon for the company: This month, TeaVoila’s cups, complete with loose-leaf tea, will debut at Mobile On the Run gas station stores in the St. Louis area, giving weary travelers a warm pick-me-up. The vendor is a big win for TeaVoila, as it caters to customers’ needs for an easy, tasty, grab-and-go drink, while offering an option that is better for the planet — not always an easy lift for customers shopping at convenience stores.
You can also order the cups on the company’s website, along with a new line of herbal loose-leaf teas for those wanting to skip the caffeine. TeaVoila cups are now sold on campus at Washington University in St. Louis, and Gerami hopes to partner with more local universities so that students can reap the benefits, too. Gerami is also in talks with major airlines to discuss using TeaVoila as part of their in-flight concessions.
Key to her success in launching a small business were all of the local groups and programs available to entrepreneurs in the St. Louis area, Gerami says. She’s participated in Square One, BALSA, Arch Grants, Venture Cafe, and perhaps most importantly, the St. Louis Mosaic Project, a regional economic initiative that aims to make the St. Louis region the fastest-growing metropolitan area for immigration in the country by 2025. The Mosaic Project facilitates an Immigrant Entrepreneurship Program, career services, student programs, and more to encourage immigrant success in the metro area.
“I got connected with Mosaic through the International Spouses Program and found out they have a program that supports small businesses,” Gerami says, crediting Suzanne Sierra and Betsy Cohen of the Mosaic Project as valuable mentors. “They have a very clear mission, are very helpful, and try to connect me with other businesses and opportunities. They have a variety of services you can take advantage of — I am still learning myself.”
Gerami hopes the availability of products like TeaVoila help to spread knowledge of more traditional and flavorful teas in an approachable, easy-to-use product.
“I’m hoping to get this to young people, because they’re most on-the-go,” she says. “I think this is good for college students or people at a convenience store: People can have better options if they have tea available. With this easy takeaway cup, hopefully more people will drink tea.”