If Donna McCafferty's custom-branded tea company continues on its promising path to breakout star, she will have some unlikely sources of inspiration to credit.
Among them: a package-design assignment when she was a student at Kutztown University more than 30 years ago, and a divorce.
The assignment led to a good grade and a clever canister for tea bags, its label a cozy scene of paintbrushes resting in a teacup against a floral background. Always fond of wordplay, McCafferty named her brew Creativitea.
The divorce, 16 years ago, led to a personal unraveling, a soul-testing recovery, and a connection on Match.com that led her to a new husband. Patrick McCafferty encouraged his wife - an artist who had been doing well teaching art and freelancing in graphic design - to dust off the tea can design idea and start her own company.
The Tea Can Co. was founded in 2011 from a studio Patrick McCafferty built for his wife behind their house in Pipersville, Bucks County. At first, Donna McCafferty's customers were her design-work clients, who bought the teas as gifts on her website, theteacancompany.com.
Figuring tea might be a good seller on college campuses for health and comfort reasons, McCafferty came up with Universitea, landing placement in bookstores at Kutztown, Bloomsburg, Lehigh, and Rider Universities. That line became a back-burner endeavor, however, because of the high fees to use college logos.
Instead, McCafferty set out to grow revenue, attending trade shows and getting the word out to wedding and event planners, real estate agents, trade publications, and specialty markets.
A big break came two years ago with help from the Event Network, a California operator of gift shops for aquariums, museums, science centers, botanical gardens, and other cultural attractions.
Soon, McCafferty was designing cans and tea blends for Longwood Gardens, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington National Cathedral, the James A. Michener Art Museum, and the Barnes Foundation, among others. Her company also customizes teas for nonprofits for fund-raising.
The teas, which come in silk sachets, are made from all-natural ingredients grown in Africa, China, Japan, and Sri Lanka, and are blended in California, Indiana, and Florida. The newest: an organic line, and teas infused with wine flavor.
The cans come from California and New Jersey.
"There's cans, and there are cans," McCafferty said, explaining how no detail is too trivial. "We learned that the hard way, when our first shipment started pitting after a few months in storage in the warehouse."
At the Barnes, Julie Steiner, retail operations manager, said she had wanted to translate the museum's art into tea flavors from the time it opened on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012.
A two-year search finally led her to McCafferty, who worked with a Barnes designer to come up with a line of customized cans and flavors - Cezanne Citrus, Renoir Earl Grey, Renoir Rooiboc Chai, Gauguin Mango Paradise, Rousseau Sencha Green, and Monet Serene Herbal - that have been on sale at the museum store and at https://store.barnesfoundation.org since summer.
"What I loved about the Tea Can Co. is they were local," Steiner said. "That made sense for us."
And in McCafferty, the company's president/designer, Steiner said she found a rare blend: "She has the artist's sensibilities, so thinking about tea in the language of art was something that was natural for her."
Since August, there have been two more promising developments: The Tea Can Co. entered into an agreement with Walgreens to test-market a line of six products in 18 stores as part of its "Be Happy, Be Healthy" campaign. And Rainforest Cafe restaurants ordered an exclusive line of teas.
McCafferty also has designed a line of flower-based teas and herbal blends to sell at the Philadelphia Flower Show in March.
If Walgreens decides to carry even just one of the Tea Can Co.'s blends in each of its more than 8,000 U.S. stores, "I'm golden," McCafferty said, describing the last six months as "a whirlwind."
Revenue last year was $250,000, with profit margins varying widely based on the cost and availability of ingredients, she said. The company has no full-time employees other than McCafferty, relying instead on contracted help as needed.
In anticipation of business growth, she has lined up a fulfillment center in Trevose to handle orders. Her warehouse is in Bedminster.
Having survived some tough personal challenges, McCafferty, 52, said her goal for the Tea Can Co. was more about emotional fulfillment than dollars.
"Just coming up with the idea and being my own boss on that and not having anyone stifle it," McCafferty said, "I love it."