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Sisters Abianne Miller Falla '08 (left) and JennaDee Miller Detro '04 (right) founded Cat Spring Yaupon Tea.

A multi-generational family of Aggies is returning to its agricultural roots to create a new business steeped in the core values of Texas A&M University. Cat Spring Yaupon Tea, based on the family’s land near the namesake town, is also breaking ground by turning a long-ignored and sometimes invasive plant into the new darling of the culinary world.

Thriving After the Drought

The impetus for creating Cat Spring Yaupon Tea began with the astute observations of Abianne Miller Falla ’08 and JennaDee Miller Detro ’04. The sisters noticed that thickets of yaupon holly on their family’s ranch were among the few survivors of 2011’s brutal drought.

The sisters’ research discovered that the hardy shrub is the only known caffeinated plant in North America and that Native Americans used its leaves to make tea a thousand years ago. Early American settlers even exported the leaves to Europe. But yaupon tea fell completely out of favor when Asian teas entered the U.S. marketplace.

Soon, yaupon was considered an invasive plant and its culinary properties were ignored until the drought of 2011. “The product is so abundant that we realized we had to invent the production process and figure out how to introduce yaupon tea to the market,” Detro said. “Yaupon is pure American goodness. This is tradition in a cup. We want to use yaupon to bring delight instead of continuing to ignore its value.  We’re being stewards of a natural resource, which is an extension of being an Aggie.”

A Can-Do Aggie Family Starts a Business

Surprisingly, neither of the young owners of this groundbreaking business have a degree in agriculture. However, both believe their respective Texas A&M degrees prepared them to connect the puzzle pieces of their business plan, from inventing the production process to reintroducing yaupon tea to the marketplace.

Yaupon holly is the only known caffeinated plant in North America. 

For example, Detro credits the College of Architecture’s environmental design studio classes, including one taught by Professor Richard Davidson, with encouraging her to learn to conceptualize a new idea and bring it to fruition. “There are so many careers that exist now that we couldn’t be trained for when we were students,” she said. “Here we are creating an entirely new industry.”

Falla’s studies at Texas A&M followed a more traditional route for an entrepreneur. As a graduate of the Professional Program in Accounting at Mays Business School, she holds both a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in marketing. She praises Dr. Michael Shaub, an accounting professor whose class taught her to distill and communicate technical information to clients. She used these lessons to complete grant applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Texas Department of Agriculture to support the business.

Several family members also share unique talents to help the fledgling company prosper. The sisters’ father, Dr. Danny K. Miller ’72, spends off-time from his dental practice tinkering with production line equipment. Detro’s husband, Grant Detro ’03, a civil engineer by training, is helping to streamline production. Their grandfather, retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John H. Miller ’46, provides strategic advice and offers feedback on the company’s employment initiative, which gives people who either lack work experience or have a criminal record a second chance at employment. The sisters’ sibling, Gracilynn Miller ’11, is instrumental in developing and deploying this initiative with the hope that it can be duplicated in other businesses. Gracilynn has a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Tapping into the Aggie Network

The sisters are also thankful to fellow Aggies who offset their lack of agriculture knowledge as they launched Cat Spring Yaupon Tea. Their initial research led to Dr. Stephen Talcott, a professor of food chemistry, whose studies on yaupon dovetailed with the sisters’ dreams for the company. Talcott now serves as a business adviser.

The sisters also worked with students from Texas A&M’s Department of Agriculture Economics who are involved with the National Agri-Marketing Association as well as Mays Business School MBA students, who studied the company as part of a class project. Additionally, Falla took part in the Mays Business School’s 3-Day Startup, which helps entrepreneurs develop a business during a 72-hour period. The sisters also tapped into the expertise of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

Cat Spring Yaupon Tea can be found across Texas as well as in eateries in Washington, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.

Growing Demand for Yaupon Tea

Since initially conceiving the idea in 2011, the sisters have worked tirelessly to create from scratch the infrastructure to bring the tea to market. The pair initially started making the tea in their personal ovens and then moved to commercial ovens. “The increasing market for yaupon tea requires us to scale both our company and our tea-making methods to meet the demand,” Detro said. “When we increase capacity, we have to reinvent what we’re doing production-wise.”

Already, the family’s product line is featured in several of San Antonio’s and Austin’s top locally-focused restaurants as well as eateries and outlets in Texas, Washington, Massachusetts, California and Nevada. The yaupon tea is sold by retailers and online through AmazonPrime and the company’s website, catspringtea.com. It also is available as an ingredient that tea houses and tea companies can buy to complement their other selections.

No matter how far the market grows, Cat Spring Yaupon Tea will be firmly rooted in the family ranch. “The company that we’re building really is a return to family values and making responsible use of natural resources,” Detro said. “We are Texas farmers with a product that was growing on our land that we didn’t realize had actual value. Building a business based on yaupon tea just makes sense.”