A growing number of expats in Mexico are starting their own businesses and not all of them are young Americans or Canadians. A case in point is Belgian-born entrepreneur Yvette Van Meirhaeghe, the tea queen of Cancún.
Born and raised in the historic Belgian city of Ghent, the 65-year-old Van Meirhaeghe followed in her father’s footsteps, working for Belgium’s Internal Revenue Service in the anti-fraud division her entire career. Following retirement a few years ago, she moved to Cancún to join her daughter, Severine, a consulate language translator who has been living in Cancún for over 17 years.
“I had been visiting my daughter in Cancún several times a year for nearly two decades,” Van Meirhaeghe said, “and finally decided three years ago to leave Belgium to be with my daughter and granddaughter full-time.”
The transition to living in Mexico almost year-round (she spends two months each year at her home in Ghent, where her son lives) was easy for her since she studied Spanish at a local university in Belgium for six years. She also was very familiar with Mexican culture from her many trips to Mexico, so experienced no culture shock when she finally made the move to Cancún.
Van Meirhaeghe settled in Cancún’s city-center in a home with two-bedrooms, one-and-a-half-baths, a living room and a kitchen. “They say I am living downtown,” she said, “but I am always asking ‘Where is downtown?’ It is very different from the cities in Europe, which have a very well-defined city-center.”
Her ability to speak Spanish has enabled her to develop close relationships with several Mexican friends and a German expat who has lived in Mexico for nearly three decades.
Her German friend – 53-year-old Christian Horn – migrated to Mexico from Hamburg, Germany where he had been trained in the hotel industry and specialized in selling a wide variety of products – from pasta to chocolate – to hotels and restaurants in the Cancún area.
“He was a friend of my daughter’s for a very long time, so I knew him from the beginning,” she said. “He sells everything. If you want to sell air, he can do it.”
When Horn quit his job a few years ago, he sat down with his friend Van Meirhaeghe to discuss his options. Several years earlier, he had returned to school in Germany to become a tea sommelier and is now one of just three tea sommeliers in Mexico.
“I told him, ‘Listen, you are an expert in teas, you should use that knowledge to start a business,’” she said. “He said, ‘this is a good idea, you should join me since you have nothing better to do than look after your granddaughter.’”
Their business – Elefan-Té – began in 2013 with tea demonstrations for potential clients in Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the three major tourist centers along the Riviera Maya. Mexico, however, is a major coffee-producing nation and a coffee-drinking country, so educating potential clients about the pleasures of tea drinking was fundamental to starting their business.
Key to the success of the new business would be Horn’s unique expertise as a tea sommelier and his long-term relationships with major hotels and restaurants in the area, as well as Van Meirhaeghe’s management skills.
“Christian started visiting hotels and restaurants from Cancún to Tulum,” Van Meirhaeghe said, “to educate them on the benefits of offering tea to the many tourists who visit the area each year. It took about a year-and-a-half before we started seeing any real progress.”
With Horn’s extensive knowledge of the tea business, they were able to locate a tea importer/distributor in Mexico City to source their product, most of which is sourced from Germany, although Japan and China are also major producers. Tea is purchased in one-kilo bags (2.2 pounds), which is then resold to their clients.
“We have a list of 150 different kinds of teas and then each client decides on what they want,” she explained. “We also provide infusions, or tea combined with fruits and herbs, which are very popular.”
Their client list has expanded to over 40 customers, including well-known hotel brands like Hyatt and Ritz-Carlton that cater to American, Canadian, British and other tea-loving visitors, and many up-scale restaurants from Cancún to Tulum.
“Prince Charles was our most famous customer,” she told us. “Several years ago, he visited the nearby state of Campeche and we were asked by the Governor’s office to provide the tea service, primarily because of Christian’s expertise as a tea sommelier. It was quite an experience. We were locked up the whole day at the Governor’s residence although Prince Charles only spent one hour there.”
Starting a business in Mexico, Van Meirhaeghe learned, has it challenges. “We were able to set-up the business because Christian has a permanent residence visa,” she said, “but it was not an easy process. We established a corporation but have no other shareholders. Because neither of us are Mexican citizens, and the money came from Belgium, it took some time to complete all of the paperwork. You just have to develop patience when dealing with governmental processes, not just in Mexico, but anywhere. My IRS background in Belgium helped a lot!”
Van Meirhaeghe did most of the paperwork herself, although a notary was paid about 10,000 pesos for assistance. No other expenses were incurred in forming their business entity.
The success of their tea business on the Yucatán peninsula has led Van Meirhaeghe and Horn to develop a franchise concept that is still in its nascent stages.
“The next thing we are planning is development of a franchise business called Tea Cube,” she said. “The idea is to franchise a module restaurant for use in shopping centers. Tea Cube would sell a variety of teas but also coffee, infused waters, smoothies, sandwiches and pastries to go.”
Not every idea the two has come up with has been successful, though. In September of 2013, they launched an online tea store in Mexico hoping to become online tea retailers and expand their geographic territory. But they soon realized that coffee was the preferred hot beverage in Mexico and online distribution was not the preferred method of purchasing.
“We learned that we have a long way to go in educating people in Mexico on the pleasures of tea,” she said.
For now, business is good on the Yucatán peninsula and life in Mexico is even better for Van Meirhaeghe.
“I will remain in Cancún because of my daughter and granddaughter and it is where our business is located,” she said. “But I am still having a hard time adjusting to Cancún’s transitional nature. It is a beautiful tourist location with great beaches and entertainment, but most people just come for a visit and then leave. A lot of nice people live here but I prefer Mérida more. I have friends in Mérida who work for me and are well educated. Overall, I think Mexico is a very beautiful country with a rich culture, interesting history and nice people. It is a good place to have a business.”