INI Sips is a veteran- and family-owned small business that sells its own organic, direct-trade coffee and loose leaf tea. Founders Davina and Gulaid Ismail launched the company in August 2019 and moved to a brick-and-mortar location in New Britain in January 2020. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Davina about the couple’s business evolution.
NAN PRICE: How did you come up with the concept for INI Sips?
DAVINA ISMAIL: In 2013, we launched our first business, DribbleBabies, which sells children’s clothing that’s handmade in Connecticut. Last year, we were talking about starting another business based on something we really loved. We both love coffee and tea.
I am a big tea drinker and my husband is a coffee drinker, so we started doing research about those industries. In the meantime, he had gotten me a tea subscription box, which I fell in love with. That helped us decide to start a coffee and tea company.
NAN: You had already gone through the startup process with your first company. Did that help in terms of launching this company?
DAVINA: It did make it easier for us. Even now. We learned a lot of things along the way I wish we had known in the beginning—down to the way we order different ingredients and things. We learned to do a bit more research before diving right in, which has been monumental for us especially during this quarantine. It’s helped with ensuring we don’t indulge too much with different products before we know what’s going to sell and what our customers love.
Also, going back to what we learned previously, before opening a shop, we wanted to test the water. We decided to participate in a few farmers’ markets and other events. The KNOW GOOD Market in Hartford was our first event—and the reaction was great immediately. A lot of those customers we had in the first few months are still our customers today.
When we started going to the farmers’ markets, we knew right away we were onto something. Being at the right places with the right customers has been key for us.
NAN: Tell us a little bit about the transition to making INI Sips a brick-and-mortar store.
DAVINA: At the farmers’ markets and other events, we realized people tended to ask if we had a storefront. From our prior experience, we knew the importance of having a home base, especially being a new brand.
We already had the location in New Britain. After the 2019 holiday season, we decided to transition the DribbleBabies store over to the INI Sips coffee shop. We weren’t getting as much foot traffic for DribbleBabies as we would have liked. But we knew having a coffee and tea shop would be a great addition to this area.
We still have DribbleBabies online, but we’re primarily doing fairs and events for that business, which have been on pause since the quarantine.
NAN: Why New Britain?
DAVINA: We’ve got a long history in New Britain. We’ve lived here for many years and it has a special place in our hearts, so we wanted to stay in the area. It’s central; it’s easy to get to. We started DribbleBabies at the Central Connecticut State University Institute of Technology & Business Development (CCSU ITBD) in the downtown New Britain district. Also, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart is very involved with new businesses and growing businesses.
NAN: How have you been marketing? And how has that changed during the pandemic?
DAVINA: That was another thing we learned from our first business. Interacting with social media was something we didn’t do so much of before. Now, we have an active social media presence. We get a lot of customers from social media, too, which has been great during the quarantine because, of course, we closed the store. So, we’ve heavily relied on social media and our online website.
We also had to focus on running the website. That helped with the second business, because I already knew how to get the website going and load pictures and ads because of our first business. I do all the web and the social media. Gulaid helps with our social media, but he’s also an essential worker who works full time.
NAN: During the quarantine, many companies have had to pivot and some have ramped up online sales.
DAVINA: “Pivot” is a word I’ve heard a lot during this time—and it’s a word we had to keep in mind. Having school-age children, early on, we knew things were going to change pretty quickly in terms of things closing. We were worried because we were just starting to get a lot of traction at the store. We have our regular customers. We’re right next to City Hall. A lot of city workers, including the police department and the fire department, frequent our location. We knew we had to increase our social media presence, and make sure people know we exist and we have an online option for purchasing.
Also, very early on, we recognized there were so many people, including my husband, who still had to go to work. And we knew it was challenging. We wanted to do something to give back. Knowing coffee and tea kind of keep people going, we decided to do a promotion where, when a customer buys two bags of our 12-ounce coffee, we donate one 12-ounce bag to healthcare workers, first responders, or other essential workers.
That really gave us a new energy and got us more involved with our community from Hartford to New Haven in all the different places where we’ve dropped off coffee. I think we’ve donated about 100 pounds of coffee.
NAN: Where are you in terms of reopening? What does the future look like?
DAVINA: Last week, we opened for curbside pickup only and we’ll most likely be continuing that for a while, even when many places are going to open and have more foot traffic inside their shops. The curbside option allows us to continue brewing coffee for our customers. People can pick up their online orders at our shop, too.