Dianne Hunt is always thinking about how to make her customers happy—and it shows at her latest establishment, Dianne’s Tea Shop. Now in its third year, the Maraval café, a carefully converted old gingerbread house, is fresh and cosy. The interior gleams with cut-glass chandeliers and there are fresh flowers on the tables. It’s a place that juxtaposes warm service and tasty food with the refined design ethic of its founder, a serial entrepreneur who has a long history in Trinidad’s fashion and retail scene.
Hunt has always had a passion for beautiful things and experiences, and for helping others find fulfilment. The tea shop—her latest venture, but most likely not her last—pulls all those elements together, allowing her to combine the business acumen she’s acquired over decades with her special ability to sense what people want.
A natural entrepreneur
“I’ve always had lots of ideas, and I’m always trying to bring those ideas to reality,” says Hunt in an interview at the tea shop on her day off. That’s nothing new: she remembers being like that even as a child growing up in Curepe. “I was always making things, doing things, drawing, dreaming.”
That creativity paid off early. Hunt’s first real business started when she was a student at Providence Girls’ Catholic School in Belmont. “I made a little brooch that I sold to my classmates,” she remembers. “There were lines outside my classroom door to buy them.” After that, she tried painting on T-shirts, just for fun—but everywhere she went, people asked about the shirts. “That became my next venture. I went to clothing stores and asked if they wanted to buy the shirts.” Hunt’s mother, a seamstress, helped out, and the project soon expanded to multiple stores.
Business had picked up, but Hunt felt she was limited: she had to rely on her mother to do all the sewing. “I thought, why don’t I train myself professionally?” So she headed abroad to study fashion design at Montreal’s La Salle Institute, while simultaneously working in the industry there.
Ahead of the curve
On her return, she teamed up with Gary Hunt (later an MP and government minister), one of her two brothers, to launch a fashion line; his business instincts and discipline complemented her free-spirited creativity. They got a loan from the bank and contacted a local mall to open a shop. But it wasn’t that simple: the mall management wasn’t particularly interested in yet another clothing store. “I said, ‘We’re not taking no for an answer. Call them and we’ll come by.’” They did, bringing samples and explaining what they had in mind. “A week later, they said they had a spot for us.” That’s classic Dianne Hunt: sure of what she wants and willing to work hard for it.
Radical Designs quickly became one of Trinidad’s most popular brands. The name was meant to suggest something utterly unusual, and Hunt says the brand was indeed that: “We stood out.” At that time, 25 years ago, there weren't many mainstream local clothing labels, and Radical Designs provided an option that reflected the Caribbean lifestyle, with natural fabrics and simple lines that referenced international trends. “People were very proud to wear it because it was made in Trinidad,” she said. At its height, Radical Designs had seven shops in Trinidad, as well as in Antigua, Grenada, Barbados and other islands.
Over time, though, Hunt found herself increasingly interested in home design and interior décor. She let her brother take over Radical Designs and in 2002, on her own, she opened DH Gift—a home shop featuring tableware, accessories, and soft furnishings from all over the world.
It was well-received and successful: at its height, Hunt was managing two stores and a warehouse. “I think that’s one of my gifts: to take a space and transform it into a place where the energy feels nice,” she said. “It attracted people because they were curious. They might not come to shop, but might end up leaving with something.”
Eventually, though, business trends caught up with Hunt, and more stores began specialising in home décor. “When I opened that store, there weren’t many others like it. Now the market has become so saturated, the whole novelty factor has been taken away,” she said. Hunt began to lose her passion for the business, which was no longer making sense financially, so in 2016 she closed the shops.
But meanwhile, her interests had evolved. She had been hosting small food-related events at the store, and in 2012, she held a tea event there, creating a tearoom environment and inviting guests. It felt exciting and somehow more fulfilling than simply selling items off the shelf. “I said to myself, that’s what I want to do. I’m going to open a tea shop and bring all these goods I sell to life.”
A designer’s eye for detail
Dianne’s Tea Shop opened on Valentine’s Day in 2014, befitting its tagline, “Share a Cup of Love.” Both the exterior and interior reflect her sensibilities: the interior—designed by Hunt—combines white furniture and distinctive finishes for a clean, contemporary look mixed with quaint old-time details.
She didn’t abandon retail completely: the shop has shelves lined with homewares, gifts, and gourmet foods for sale. But the focus of this business is providing customers with an outstanding experience. That’s something that can’t be ordered online—a fact that Hunt began to realise mattered as she watched malls and other retail outlets slowly wither with the advent of the internet.
Naturally, the food is the centrepiece. The shop offers breakfast and lunch as well as tea, and most of the options—like the Thai curry, waldorf salad with strawberries, and signature DH Sandwich (turkey breast, Emmental cheese, and peach jam)—feature unprocessed ingredients. “We don’t overengineer our food,” said Hunt. “All my ingredients are the best—I go the extra mile.” For example, instead of using regular baking powder, she searches out the aluminium-free variety, and for enhanced flavour, she’ll use Bragg’s unpasteurised apple cider vinegar, rather than the usual kind, and sea salt in place of ordinary table salt. And she’s a stickler for the best produce and baked goods. “If it’s not fresh, the customer can taste it. I’m passionate about that.”
Part of Hunt’s model includes empowering other businesspeople. She employs smaller vendors when she can—local bakers, for example, and Giselle Donawa, the woman from whom she buys fresh juices. “I try to have an impact on my community, helping as many people as possible to become independent and sustainable.” That extends to the physical space, too. The tea shop has a side room where she allows young entrepreneurs to set up their wares as pop-up shops, or conduct workshops or meetings. And if the activity is socially uplifting or nonprofit in nature, like a recent mandala art class and a vision-board workshop, she won’t charge the group to use the space.
That broad-minded attitude is typical of Hunt. Even in the early days of Radical Designs, she wasn’t simply making clothes: she was trying to reach people. At the time, her brother was mystified that connecting with people was so important to her. “And I’d say, ‘What else do you do in life?’ For me, I think life’s joy is in sharing; I don’t know any other way to be,” she says. That’s apparent at the tea shop, where she warmly greets her guests. “My purpose is not to be peddling commodities; my purpose is to make people’s lives a little bit better, raise their awareness so we all become better people.”
But while the culinary and social elements of owning a restaurant came instinctively to Hunt, the business of running a restaurant required a steep learning curve. In the beginning, she didn’t know much about it, though she knew what she wanted. Together, she and a chef designed the menu, though the two butted heads when it came to Hunt’s detailed specifications about what the food should be like. “The first year, I was a hamster on a wheel—always like ‘Oh, my God, we ran out of this...’ It was on-the-job training.”
Gradually, she has strengthened her skills as a businesswoman, though she’s still working to improve. Hunt says she’s constantly reading books about entrepreneurship and watching inspirational videos by business gurus Ricardo Semler and Simon Sinek. She also credits meditation and her involvement with Landmark Worldwide, a personal-growth organisation, with expanding her creativity and ability to think beyond conventional norms. “That’s one of my mantras: to not do something just because others are doing it. To always step out, go outside the box.”
Above all, she says, she has gradually learned to be disciplined about the work. Years ago, while running Radical Designs, she was young and creative and “all over the place,” as she puts it. Now, she takes the work more seriously and ensures her standards are consistent.
Despite the challenges of the restaurant business, this is actually easier than running the gift shops. “And my management skills weren’t the best,” she admits. Plus, finding the right people to staff the shops was always a challenge. But these days, she’s much more patient with her staff of 14, recognising that they’re individuals with both shortcomings and strengths, and is less likely to simply cut them off or fire them when they do something wrong. “Now I actually take the time to find out what the problem is. What can I do differently, what can you do differently?”
Size matters, too, she says. She has financed all of her businesses herself, using bank loans and investors; there was no family money or inheritance she could draw on. The tea shop’s smaller scope has made that more manageable. “This was the perfect size for me.” And that’s true in other ways besides money. Hunt does just about everything at the tea shop—that’s her nature, unsurprisingly—and it’s doable with an enterprise of this size.
‘The best thing is it doesn’t feel like work’
However, getting time off from the business can be a challenge. Hunt is divorced and her 21-year-old son is studying chemical engineering in Scotland, so she doesn’t mind long work hours, though she enjoys time off and a chance to visit family, paint, and read. One thing has definitely improved her work-life balance: the shop is a quarter of a mile from her house, and that’s a considerable benefit, given Trinidad’s traffic. “The things none of us have control over in this universe are space, time, and gravity. So I’m doing my best to work within this universe using time and space efficiently.”
Hunt admits that this probably isn’t the end of the road for her restless entrepreneurial spirit. She has ideas for new projects, and feels some hunger for new challenges. But for now, the tea shop and all of its intricacies fit her perfectly. After all, she says, “The best thing is that it doesn’t feel like work. I feel like I come to my home every day and am just serving my guests.”
ONE MINUTE ENTREPRENEUR: DIANNE HUNT
What’s one book every entrepreneur should read?
"Leadership Wisdom From The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari," by Robin Sharma
What’s one brand you admire?
I kind of admire Apple—just how convinced Steve Jobs was to create this brand and bring it to life, all the sacrifices he made, how driven he was about the look, and the impact he had on the planet.
How do you measure success?
Happiness. When I feel happy, on all levels—financially, spiritually, emotionally—then I know it’s doing well.
What's the best thing about running your own business?
Freedom. You’re working longer hours, you’re always at it, but there’s a freedom.
Is there one thing every customer should try?
The Dianne Breakfast: it’s eggs benedict, and we’ve been told by many people that it’s one of the best they’ve ever had.