Hey! I am Kelly and I am about to break the 4th wall to say...
I started working part-time for Tanglewood last summer. Being a small business owner myself, I’m constantly impressed by how wholeheartedly Ro and Misty put their love and hard work into everything they do. It’s so evident to me that the products that make Tanglewood what it is are a direct result of the patience, resilience, respect, and heart that they put into it. They may not know it yet, (they will once they read this!) but they’re hands down the best people I’m grateful to ever work with, and are the small business owner mentors that I never knew I needed. I sat down with Misty and Ro as we spilled the tea about all things Tanglewood, our love for the Portland food scene, and where that name came from!
Kelly: Tell us a little bit about your journey creating Tanglewood. We know it stemmed from the Either/Or café, but what was that process like?
Ro Tam: Tanglewood was a small side project that snowballed into something much bigger. I’ve always enjoyed playing around with different flavor profiles and that was how our flagship drink, Ginger Spiced Chai, started. The next phases were kind of a blur, but I had a ton of help from my friends Kelly and Marie, and then from Misty when she joined the company seven years ago.
Misty Cumbie: When I joined, Tanglewood was still self-distributing locally in Portland but needed a little organizational support. I was working for a domestic violence program at the YWCA and was feeling a little burned out so planned to jump in to help Ro develop some systems while I figured out my next steps.
Where did the name Tanglewood come from?
MC: That’s all Ro!
RT: There is an album by the Silver Jews called “Tanglewood Numbers”, and I really liked how the word Tanglewood sounds. It’s not my favorite album by them, but something about how it sounds appealed to me.
Kelly: It’s quite the achievement to open a café that is adored so much by the community, but it is quite another to create–literally from scratch–a beverage line that’s available nationwide. How does that feel for you?
RT: Awww thank you! It’s kind of hard to see the full picture when we are day-to-day, but when we go to events or receive emails from customers and get positive feedback it feels great. We feel so fortunate to be able to contribute and be supported by our community. Also, we are proud of our very small and dedicated staff who have helped us get to this point.
MC: I am really proud of us! The path we took was certainly not linear so certain aspects still feel a little mysterious. Part of me thinks that we just got lucky, but then I look back to when Tanglewood started and know better.
Kelly: In the early days, what challenges did you face as a women-owned business–especially one in a male-dominated F&B industry?
RT: Back then it was very hard to find positions in the coffee industry where I could learn more about the business side of running a café. The few positions that were available were dominated by white men. After I decided to strike out on my own it felt like my credibility and knowledge of café drinks were constantly being challenged by customers. For example, people would assume that the young male barista behind the counter was the owner rather than myself when we were both working.
Kelly: That sure is relatable. Sigh. What sort of advice would you give to the next generation of women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ business owners out there?
RT: Ummm haters gonna hate. More seriously, figure out your vision and focus and hold on to it. It’s good to listen to feedback, but don’t compromise your integrity or do something that is untrue to your purpose.
MC: It’s good to be critical, but try not to be too hard on yourself when things are not exactly how you want them to be. I can definitely be hyper-focused on the next steps or opportunities that we’ve missed. Usually if I can sit with those feelings and zoom out to see the whole picture I start to be a little kinder and more objective to myself.
Kelly: I love that advice! If you could go back in time and give 10-year-old you some words of wisdom, what would it be?
RT: My parents are immigrants and I watched them work pretty much everyday my whole childhood, often working two jobs. I have definitely inherited their work ethic and understood that as a key to making things work. Now that I am older, I’ve found that it is important to have work/life balance and take time off when you need to recharge. During the early pandemic I started fishing and now that is my recharge activity.
MC: Listen to your inner voice. The world is full of distractions and opinions but if you can hold on to what you value you can maintain your integrity even in challenging moments.
Kelly: What was your first taste memory?
RT: My grandmother on my mom’s side used to make this dish called Ba-wan which is a Taiwanese snack made with a sticky translucent dough that is filled with ground pork and steamed.
MC: Red beans and rice. Both of my parents are from Alabama so at least once a week we had that as a staple meal. It's a simple recipe but it is definitely my go to comfort food.
Kelly: Tell us about the new Tanglewood HQ
RT: It still feels a little unreal but we are all so excited to be here.
MC: It was a little scary to move to a bigger space but we had outgrown our previous kitchen and it was an impediment for everyone. I love having more space and looking forward to making it feel like home.