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Retailer Profile: A Tea Shop
Staff Report

As an alternative to the obfuscation, over-formalization, and xenophobia of traditional Asian and English tea houses, Michelle Brown and Linda Neumann created Teaism in 1996 in Dupont Circle, which has developed into three stores with an enthusiastic response from the community and visitors of Washington, D.C.

T&C: How long have you been in business?

Linda Neumann: We opened our first Teaism restaurant in 1996. It is in a very diverse neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Ė a great blend of residential, commercial and retail that goes all day long - plus itís close to many of the embassies - so we thought we could reach a lot of native tea drinkers. This location is amazing! Itís 1400-sq. ft. and 35 seats, and we did $1.3 million here last year. We opened a second location close to the White House in April 1999, and a third much larger location with 4000-sq. ft. near the Smithsonian Museums in October 1999.

T&C: How did you begin?

LN: My business partner Michelle was married to a gentleman from India so many of her mornings started with the chai making ritual. In the early Ď90s she began to research sources for loose leaf tea to write a tea list for the Asian fine dining restaurant that she was managing. She made contact with some of the importers and people in the industry, and decided that this was an area with a lot of potential. We decided we wanted to do something casual and inexpensive with an Asian feel inspired by the countries that tea comes from. Our chef, who has been with us since the beginning, is Hungarian, but he really enjoys the clean, healthy ingredients and style of Asian food.

T&C: Why did you decide to open a shop?

LN: Teaism is a complex concept. We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. We have about 40 different loose leaf teas and a dozen herbal infusions on our tea list. Our commitment is to top-quality loose leaf tea. We donít sell any teabags, and aside from the classics like Earl Grey, Jasmine and Lapsang Souchong, we donít sell any perfumed or scented teas. Our teas are available to drink or purchase in 2-oz. packages to make at home. We also sell teapots and other tea related gift items. Our orientation in the gift department is towards things practical and useful rather than decorative. We also work with a number of potters from around the country to offer hand-crafted merchandise.

We sell our tea on a wholesale basis to many restaurants in Washington and around the country. A lot of chefs and restaurant managers worry that taking on a loose leaf tea program is too difficult, but with all our experience, we are able to assist, train and support them through the process.

T&C: What food/pastries do you offer? What else do you provide, other than tea/coffee?

LN: When we were developing the business plan for our first location, we had two concerns. First off, we worried that if we also sold coffee, we would never sell any tea because the strong coffee smells would overwhelm the more delicate tea aromas.

Since our mission is to promote tea, we decided not to sell any coffee at all. But then, we were concerned that a tea business with just a limited menu of pastries would not be economically viable, so we decided to be a regular restaurant with a full menu. We are a casual, limited service place Ė people order with the cashier, get their food from the open kitchen and then seat themselves. Itís great! We have so many regular customers. Since our prices are affordable and our food and tea is so healthy, people eat with us everyday. Our very best customer comes in twice a day Monday thru Friday, and once on Sunday! We joke that there are a lot of homes in D.C. with very clean kitchens, since our guests eat with us so often.

T&C: Who are your beverage line suppliers?

LN: We work with a variety of different importers. In our experience, tea comes from so many countries, that no one person or company can do it all. Before we opened our first location, we conducted days of tea tasting to select the very best source for Sencha, the best source for Dragon Well, the best source for Darjeeling, etc. We are constantly tasting samples from our suppliers.

T&C: Do you have any signature drinks? Any signature iced tea beverages?

LN: Our recipe for ochazuke. This is a Japanese rice and tea soup that is very popular at Teaism. Itís comfortable home cooking in Japan that lets you use up lots of leftovers.

T&C: What is your most popular type of tea?

LN: Chai is far and away the most popular thing at Teaism. Our chai is blended especially for us, and we get big batches that are freshly ground every week. We cook it authentically in big pots on the stove with milk and sugar. For the chai, we use close to 3,000-lbs. of tea and ground spices a year.

T&C: Please give us an estimate on foot traffic.

LN: At our three restaurants, our average guest check is between $7- $9. We probably served close to 400,000 people last year. Our 1,400-sq. ft. Dupont Circle location with 35 seats serves more than 600 people a day on the weekends.

Overall, our business is about 85% restaurant and the remaining 15% is sales of loose leaf tea, grocery merchandise and gift items - about $600,000 last year.

T&C: What are the demographics of your customers?

LN: Our customers are generally a really wonderful, diverse bunch of people - lots of people dining alone, tons of families with babies and little kids, university students, professionals and tourists (both domestic and international). A common thread among our customers is their commitment to healthy living. Our customers are all ages, colors, shapes and sizes.

T&C: Can you offer any promotional ideas? Incentives for purchasing or publicity; point of sale items, such as gift certificates, contests, advertising, etc?

LN: Weíve been lucky enough to build our business without advertising. Our restaurant customers get hooked on the tea, and end up purchasing loose leaf tea and tea equipment for themselves and as gifts. Tourists who visit D.C. go home and then become our internet and mail-order customers.

T&C: What brand (type of) brewing machines or teapots do you have?

LN: We use Bunn hot water machines in our restaurants. We brew in individual teapots or handcrafted mugs by an artist named Paul Eshelman ó all equipped with individual filter baskets. We rely on thermometers and timers to ensure the proper water temperature and steeping time.

T&C: Do you pack tea?

LN: We sell our tea in increments of 2-oz. In our stores, we have a large wall display with rough-hewn mahogany shelves and colorful washi paper covered Japanese tea boxes, where we store the tea. We love to pull down the boxes so customers can see and smell the different teas. We use black, foil bags with a brad closure to protect the tea from light, moisture and contaminating odors.

T&C: How do you recruit employees? How do you retain them?

LN: We are lucky to have a wonderful family of employees (many of whom stay with us for years). Lots of our younger customers end up applying for summer jobs as cashiers. We pay salaries that are comparable to other D.C. restaurants, offer paid vacations and other incentives to reward longevity. We also firmly believe in promoting from within. Teaism is a very nuturing environment - for our customers and our employees.

T&C: Describe your storeís layout. How do you find your furniture, equipment, etc?

LN: We wanted our restaurants to have a rustic, Asian feel. A good friend of ours is a designer and woodworker who made our tables and display shelves out of rough-hewn mahogany. A team of talented painters applied faux finishes to our walls and painted beautiful murals to enhance the spaces. We have a combination of low wooden stools, chairs and benches. Our Penn Quarter location has an indoor pond with koi. Our younger guests love to help the chef feed the fish. An outdoor rock garden with Japanese evergreens welcomes guests to our Dupont Circle location.

T&C: Is there anything you would like our readers to know about your shop/business?

LN: Teaism is a word from a Japanese book written to explain the complexities of the tea ceremony to Westerners. Roughly speaking, it means learning to appreciate something that is small and perfect in a world that is not so perfect and even a little out of control. If you ask our customers, I think they will tell you that we live up to our name.

Tea & Coffee - June, 2007
Theta Ridge Coffee

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