Funding Your Ulster County Business: Caraway Tea & TMI Project

Mountain View
Posted May 8, 2019

New York State’s Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) process opened on May 1 and Ulster County Office of Economic Development staff is available to assist everyone thinking of applying. Staff has provided vital assistance to hundreds of organizations over the past nine years, helping to attract millions of dollars in funding to the Mid-Hudson Region, including recent CFA grants to Caraway Tea in Highland and the TMI Project in Kingston. Please call (845) 340-3556 or email oed[at]co.ulster.ny[dot]us if you are thinking about applying.

The Caraway Tea Company, LLC

Michael and Gina Caraway, Owners of Caraway Tea Company

Gina and Michael Caraway began The Caraway Tea Company in their garage in 2010. Originally a branded product, which they sold into grocery stores and specialty tea shops, they quickly realized they were not marketers. Though the teas were high-end specialty teas, they made a few key mistakes. “People assumed the tea would not taste good because it had caraway in its name, though there was no caraway seed in the tea. Even with beautiful packaging and fine tea, we learned quickly that our tea line was not going to be successful. We fell down,” Gina says. Instead, they used their knowledge base of technology and B2B sales to pivot to co-packing and blending of teas. Today, Caraway Tea is one of the nation’s leading specialty tea suppliers and contract manufacturers. Their robust global sourcing network—combined with innovative in-house tea blending and manufacturing capabilities—has secured their position as a trusted private label and co-packer choice.

Tea bags on the conveyor belt at Caraway Tea Company

The Caraways prevailed with help from family—including their sons, Wayne Fiorelli and Nicholas Fiorelli, respectively VP of Quality Assurance and Sales Representative—friends and members of the community. It’s no surprise Suzanne Holt, Director of the Ulster County Office of Economic Development, “liked the energy of the place when she came to take a tour,” says Gina. “She could see we weren’t taking advantage of people. Being in business is not just about the bottom line and profits. We pay $15/hour to start, feed everybody [Caraway supplies an array of fruit, granola bars, snacks and a free home-cooked lunch program for employees], offer time off and medical benefits, and always work to offer more.” They are also a community-oriented company that donates to local and national charities to support a wide array of causes.

Caraway Tea Company employees

Holt assisted the Caraways with their 2018 CFA application, which secured a $500,000 grant for Phase 1 Expansion of the building they’ve occupied since 2014. Construction will begin in June. 

“Suzanne also encouraged us to go to the Ulster County Office of Employment & Training, especially after we ran out of friends and family to hire,” Gina laughs. “She has a wealth of knowledge about what other people in the community can do to help you, and steered us in the right directions when we grew too large for our building. She’s been extremely helpful, always there for us,” Gina says. “And, the folks at Wallkill Valley Federal Savings Bank have been really great. If I had to do it all over again as a startup, I’d go straight to a regional bank: They’re really invested in the community and very helpful.”

The Caraways’ relationship with The Manufacturing and Technology Enterprise Center (MTEC), which helps Hudson Valley businesses and manufacturers streamline processes and operations, laid the foundation for next level growth: A Lean Manufacturing process and Value Stream Mapping technology targeted improvements in warehouse configuration and setup, fulfillment process, and inventory control. When they expand into their new space, MTEC will assist with facility layout, planning, employee training, implementation of workflow, information systems, and all else necessary to maximize output. 

Inside the Caraway Tea Company warehouse

“Now we have 200 accounts and 25 employees,” says Gina, “and we’re looking to hire two more people to work in warehouse fulfillment. We have two sides of our business now—we not only pack teas, but we also provide fulfillment services, where we give brands a US presence and fulfill orders, basically reverse outsourcing.” 

TMI Project

(L to R) Julie Novak and Eva Tenuto, co-founders, TMI Project. Photographer: Kristopher Johnson

TMI Project also began in 2010. The idea for the innovative storytelling project happened at a United Way fundraiser featuring The Vagina Monologues, recalls Eva Tenuto, co-founder of TMI Project with her partner, Julie Novak. “After directing The Vagina Monologues for two years in a row, I asked if it would be OK to tell our own stories, and I like to say TMI—which stands for Too Much Information—was birthed out of The Vagina Monologues,” says Tenuto. “The audience reaction let us know we were on to something by talking about things you’re not supposed to talk about because you are too ashamed or embarrassed. People felt alive in a way I’d never seen before, and I felt honored: We were hearing something sacred. Participants said they felt lighter, like they were floating, and it cleared space for something new to happen.”

Audiences continue to be electrified by hearing people tell their stories, and the TMI Project tagline—Changing The World One Story at a Time—captures the stigma-releasing, social change inducing value of their work. Four signature programs now form the core of their work: Black Stories Matter (addressing hate, bigotry and racial injustice), LGBTQ_TMI (inspiring empowerment and change, sometimes in conjunction with The Trevor Project), Locker Room Talk (confronting hyper-masculine culture), and Vicarious Resilience (living with mental health issues).

Cast members of intergenerational “Black Stories Matter”

In 2017, TMI Project was awarded a CFA grant of $45,000, which allowed them to hire a new full-time Director of Marketing and Communications. The position supported their transition from a regional live storytelling organization to an international multi-media storytelling hub. “The Office of Economic Development helped us with our CFA application,” says Tenuto. “They guided us in some rewriting and helped us frame our ‘ask.’ They definitely have expertise in that department. Hiring our marketing director has really opened up possibilities for us to do other things, and freed up my time to focus more on programming. We’ve accomplished a lot as a result.”

To date, TMI Project has led approximately 70 workshops and staged performances by more than 1,500 participants. They have presented to nearly 50,000 people in schools, colleges, prisons, mental health clinics, theaters, community centers, and at The United Nations. 

Eva Tenuto with Tony Porter (A Call To Men) and members of the Kingston High School football team

Hiring another executive level employee was a tremendous boost to TMI’s capacity. “Our size and increasing our capacity is our biggest challenge, and adding another salary with the CFA grant was huge for us,” says Tenuto. 

Now poised to expand their brand and programming to national awareness, TMI Project has completed a three-year strategic plan, and will use its storytelling workshop methodology and re-tooled mission to augment its deep-seated commitment to social justice. They’ve recently completed a viewing guide and intergenerational performances of Black Stories Matter have been livestreamed at hosted viewing parties in San Francisco, New Orleans, Boston and Ohio: It’s available on their website, free of charge. “Millbrook Library just hosted a viewing party locally, and the viewing guide provides context for what people are seeing, plus strategic tips for post-show dialogue and local community action items. Using storytelling for social justice is based upon our original focus of tying the momentum of inspiration into taking action.”

Curtain call at “Voices in Action 2017”

As TMI Project broadens its reach, Tenuto will keep an in-person focus on the Hudson Valley. “We’re working with Radio Kingston to produce our first podcast, which is really exciting, and, we’ve just completed our first documentary film, with two more coming out. Vicarious Resilience had its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival in October. Locker Room Talk will be out in the fall, and it documents our work with the Kingston High School football players and a national organization, A Call to Men. We have filmed all of our NYC Lifelines footage, and it will probably be released in 2020 with The Trevor Project.” 

We Can Help with Your CFA Application

If your business or non-profit organization is considering applying for a 2019 CFA or other grant proposals, give us a call at (845) 340-3556 to discuss your plans and see how we can best assist with your application. 

The Manufacturing and Technology Enterprise Center (MTEC)
180 South Street
Highland, NY 12528
(845) 391-8214

Ulster County Office of Employment & Training
Lisa Berger, Director
521 Boices Lane
Kingston NY 12401
(845) 340-3170 OR (845) 443-8066

Wallkill Valley Federal Savings and Loan
(845) 895-3304

Caraway Tea Company, LLC
(845) 236-3645

TMI Project
721 Broadway, Suite 110
Kingston NY 12401

Ulster County Office of Economic Development
244 Fair St, 6th Floor
Kingston, NY 12401

Phone: (845) 340-3556
Email: oed[at]co.ulster.ny[dot]us