Meet the founders of the popular Northern Ireland company Suki Tea famous for its inventive flavours who are adapting to the pandemic with tasty new products and online courses - BelfastTelegraph.co.uk
In every successful partnership, there is a yin and a yang, a dreamer and a details guy - or in Suki Tea's case, an Oscar and an Annie. Oscar Woolley and Annie Irwin, the brains behind the much-loved Belfast-based tea makers have been working together for 15 years, and say their differences - as well as their big love of tea, of course - have been a huge boost for their business.
And with companies right across the world facing extraordinary challenges in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, a balance of creative thinking and attention to detail is more important to businesses than ever.
"I'd say Oscar and I have pretty different ways of thinking," says Annie. "We agree on the direction of the business, but our attitudes and approaches are quite different.
"At one point on my job description at Suki Tea I was referred to as the 'Gatekeeper' to Oscar's ideas. He's got a lot of them.
"Ten years ago he wanted to start delivering tea by drone, so it's safe to say Oscar's very creative. I'd be more your attention to the finer details sort of person, looking at the finances and operations, HR and stock management. I like my spreadsheets."
Oscar, who grew up in Nottingham, encountered the wonders of tea for the first time as he travelled around Asia in his early 20s, and describes himself as a "shoot for the stars, ask questions later" sort of person.
"I guess I'm creative, aspirational," says Oscar, who studied illustration and graphic design at the University of Central Lancashire. "And that means there's a risk I can get carried away. Luckily, Annie can rein me in."
One venture that's gone ahead though, even in these difficult times, is the company's latest innovation, a move into the world of fizzy drinks with the launch of two new sparkling iced teas.
At less than 60 calories per can, the sparkling tea infusions - which come in the pretty exotic-sounding flavours of 'black tea and peach' and 'white tea, apple and elderflower' - are another example of Suki pushing its way out of the "comfort zone" while the going's good.
Oscar, Chief Leaf at Suki Tea, sees it as another way to "seek new adventures in the world of tea".
Brewing ideas: Oscar Woolley with wife Samantha and son Roman
"We wanted to create a product aimed at the UK fizzy drinks industry that didn't lose any of Suki's integrity and hard-earned reputation for authenticity and a genuinely crafted, curated experience," he says.
Pals Oscar and Annie first crossed paths 20 years ago when Oscar made his way to Northern Ireland after meeting his now-wife Samantha on his travels.
"I moved to Belfast back in 2000. I was really brilliantly surprised by it," says Oscar. "I really enjoyed it. I found it to be such a friendly place and I arrived to an immediate set of friends, which was great. Annie was in that set, she was Samantha's best friend."
Like Oscar and Samantha, Annie, too, had spent time in Asia after finishing her degree at Queen's University Belfast in Anthropology and Women's Studies.
She lived in Thailand for a couple of years, teaching English as a foreign language before returning home to pursue her studies and research work at Queen's University's TEFL department.
Remarkably it was during that time, when she was sent to China for work in her late 20s, that she first started to drink tea.
"That was my very first experience of tea gardens or tea houses," says Annie (48), who grew up in Killyleagh. "I went to China for a semester and it was all so different.
"I never really drank tea growing up. The bog standard tea that sat brewing in a pot so long you could stand a spoon up in it, well that was never attractive to me.
"But when I saw all this amazing tea when I was in China, I loved it. There were all these amazing, distinctive varieties of loose leaf tea, there was such a huge choice and this unbelievable freshness.
"To me it was a whole new world to explore, which I loved. It wasn't tea as we knew it."
But back in Belfast after her stint in China, Annie was back to the day job in the early noughties, working on an academic research project, while Oscar tried his hand at everything from telesales to delivering the post. Finally, in 2004, it was a shared ambition to try something new that led to the birth of Suki Tea.
Oscar, dad to five-year-old Roman, says: "We didn't know right at the start if it would be tea or perhaps something else, but Annie and I had had conversations about challenging ourselves to start something from nothing.
"We were all really good pals back then, and Samantha was completely supportive of the ambition to start something from scratch. We had this real drive to start something we could call our own.
"Then, on September 4, 2004, we shook hands and said okay, let's do this. Let's take on the second most-drunk liquid on the planet, and make a business out of it."
Six months later, the pair registered the company name and the business was official.
"We went through quite a list of names before we hit on Suki," recalls Annie, mum to Mary (11), Esther (9), and six-year-old Michael.
"Oscar still has the original handwritten list, and it turns out lots of the names we discounted have gone on to be launched as companies.
"We got to Suki through the rhyme, Polly put the kettle on, Suki took it off again. It was strong, two syllables, and we thought it was a name that could carry the brand around the world."
And while of course the business is based in Belfast, Suki Tea travels far and wide, now exporting to an incredible 21 countries.
"We didn't want something that would work just here in Northern Ireland," explains Oscar.
"We wanted something that would travel if it worked and had success down the line, which is how it's worked out so far.
"As soon as we've had success we've pressed reset and got ready for the next level up. It's pleasantly surprised us."
But with the true scale of the fallout from the coronavirus crisis still to work its way through, what happens next is anyone's guess.
For now, Oscar and Annie are embracing the challenges presented by the upheaval, and doing their best to adjust.
As well as furloughing around half of their staff, the pair have made changes to meet the upsurge in demand online, as well as offering online tea courses, something they'd hoped to do face to face a little way on in the future.
"A lot of the time I've just been here on my own," says Oscar (43). "And when Annie's in the office we have separate rooms so social distancing has been fine. As well as continuing to supply some cafes, with some flipping to sell retail or online, we've found an upsurge online too.
"In the midst of all that's going on, people have really changed their shopping habits. Normally there are thousands of cafes in the UK selling Suki, so with that tap cut off in a lot of places people are going online to purchase it, so we've seen a significant increase there.
Oscar and business partner Annie Irwin at their Suki Tea stall at St George’s
Market, Belfast, in 2005
"It's definitely a challenging time, but we're taking it as a bit of time to focus. It's hard not to have the full team around us, but once we'd scaled back to support the existing business we had to diversify and adapt.
"Luckily we'd done a lot of work with new product development so there's a lot to talk about, and we've been doing our online tea courses too, which have been great.
"We had a certified tea course developed last year, which was intended to be face to face, but we've adapted it to work online.
"It's working well because there are so many cafe owners out there just sitting waiting patiently for things to get better.
"It's a time for all of us to focus, and for us it's a time to educate people a bit about what we love at a time when they want to be occupied.
"We're getting a really good response. Annie's background in teaching helped."
And like everyone else right now, away from their all-important work, Oscar and Annie are making lockdown life work for themselves and their families as best they can.
"When Oscar first moved here all those years ago, he ran an art class for a group of friends in his attic every Tuesday night," recalls Annie, who lives in Downpatrick with husband Tim and their children. "It was usually with a bottle of wine. During lockdown I've found I've taken art up again, and I'm really enjoying it.
"Working so much at home with the kids, it's nice to have something for myself. I'm working with acrylics, which is great, and I've also learned my first ever tune on the piano - a song by Keane - and I'm doing a bit of yoga. When it comes to home schooling, the kids are doing a lot of PE and art, music and dancing.
"Tim and I are doing what we can to support each other and we're not putting a huge amount of pressure on anyone. It's really whatever works for now."
"I think everyone is finding the challenges at the minute slightly different," he says.
"Everyone's experiences are just different, even though it's strange and difficult for everyone.
"At home, it's been quite enjoyable in that we've had some quality time together we wouldn't have had otherwise, but I guess everyone has had to make adjustments and we'll just have to see how we come out of it all on the other side.
"We just don't know what it looks like. We'll keep trying to do our thing with the business, and we'll do our best to help other people through it. We'll support cafes during the recovery period, and hopefully what we do will work.
"Annie and I know each other so well by this point, we've got each other's backs personally, which is really reassuring.
"We've got such different skill sets, which have ended up being very complementary, so we're hopeful.
"Belfast is a great city. There is international calibre skill right here, but it still seems like a small town. It's really collaborative, and that's a real bonus."