Chai and Conversation

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

Nestled in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Pike Street Market is the birthplace of America’s coffee revolution. One doesn’t have to travel very far to find the old farmer’s market where Starbuck’s began in the 1970s. Not far from that is Pier 70, where Seattle’s Best blossomed a decade later.

It goes without saying that the Emerald City loves it coffee.

But tea?

Yes, according to Julie Rosanoff, co-owner of the Perennial Tea Room in—where else?—Pike Street.

“We have been here for over twenty years and counting.” She said in an email interview.

Being a tea shop in the country’s coffee capital is a tall order for anyone, not least a couple of idealistic entrepreneurs with tastes for oolong and green tea. But Rosanoff and her business partner never wavered. In fact they thrived, and it’s all due to a simple business decision early on.

“We decided early on not to be a restaurant. We don’t bother with big chains, and we have no plans to expand beyond where we are. I find that there is a reaction against large coffee companies and people choose tea as an alternative.”

Rosanoff is not alone. According to a 2000 survey by Luzianne Iced Tea, Americans consumed over 7.8 billion gallons of tea in the last decade alone, 90 percent of it black—mostly bagged. Hot tea is the second most popular, usually of the green variety.

Another revolution—the health revolution—has a lot to do with the rise in popularity of green and oolong teas. Yet just as many people drink tea as a status item or to confer on themselves a degree of nonconformist cool.

A number of companies have caught on, marketing products for a wide variety of ‘with it’ consumers, ranging from the eco-conscious ‘green’ twentysomething to the hurried mom on the go. Gourmet teas are available in every restaurant and bistro from Los Angeles to Manhattan and everywhere in between, and in an ironic twist that only a tea drinker could love, Chai is one of the most popular drinks at Starbuck’s.

Despite the emerging popularity of teas both gourmet and not, the United States remains firmly in the coffee column, consuming only 0.2 kilograms of the stuff per year. Only Belgium and Italy rank lower. Even in a city as diverse as Seattle, businesses such as Perennial are still outnumbered by a legion of independent coffee houses and chains.

Yet the ranks of tea shops, rooms, and businesses are swelling. Over 1,500 tea shops have sprouted since 1993—the biggest boom since the 19th Century.

Many of them, in the South.

Ask around, and many local residents will say that the Secret Tea Room is Greensboro’s best kept secret. Located on the 400 block of State Street in the heart of downtown, the modest restaurant and catering business is a blend of Southern charm and modern efficiency.

For over a year and a half, Gayle Smith and husband Bo have been at the helm, working in the kitchen, managing the books, greeting every customer with a smile.

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in Greensboro, NC

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in downtown Greensboro, NC

“All our food is homemade daily.” Gayle said.

They don’t just serve tea. They have club and finger sandwiches, and their famous white chili has been known to attract customers from across the state—and elsewhere. Yet the star attraction remains the strong leafy brown and green brews.

“We have some 25 international teas offered in the tea room. They are imported from all over the world, with many blends, mostly loose leaf. We also serve a rich quality of chai tea, hot and cold.”

Originally built in 2004, the enterprise almost disappeared from the local landscape, until Smith purchased it following the death of its previous owner. Despite its precarious existence, the business has survived, even thrived.

Mom and pop’s such as Smith’s make up the majority of tea rooms and shops in the U.S., and it’s no secret that the life of a tea owner is not a financially stable one. Of the thousands that stay afloat each year, just as many are forced to call it quits.

The number one reason is lack of business experience.

While Smith and her husband are on firmer ground, it is little wonder most entrepreneurs shy away from the business.

But once upon a time, they didn’t.

According to Jan Whitaker, social historian and author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, throughout the late 1880s and into early 1900s, tea rooms weren’t just a fad, they were almost the norm for the middle and upper class.

“Having tea in the home was ‘coded’ as upper class.” She said.

For a young man or a young woman aspiring to climb through the ranks of the patrician class, drinking tea was one way of setting themselves apart from their perceived inferiors, no more than, say, drinking civit coffee is today.

Yet even the strongest endorsement of tea by the manner born wasn’t enough to curb American’s coffee addiction. Even during the fin de siècle era, of the two, coffee remained the dominant import by far.

Yet something funny happens on the way to tea becoming a rival to coffee. As respectable women sought in vain for a public place that would allow them to sip their coffee without having to endure the stench of cigar smoke and the typically ribald jokes that go along with men associating with each other in the public square, they begin to entertain thoughts of opening tea shops by themselves.

As a result, an array of women-owned eateries pop up which cater exclusively to other women. Just as coffee shops in the 17th century gave rise to the Enlightenment, these shops give rise to another revolution: feminism, or rather, the suffrage movement.

“They [the tea shops] were integral in the sense that they gave women new business opportunities, and more importantly, signaled women’s full entry into public spaces that had been dominated by men in the 19th Century, when there were relatively few places a ‘respectable’ woman could go for lunch.”

The tea craze peaked in the 1950s, as more and more homeowners were able to brew it without the assistance of a ‘tea lady’. But hope springs eternal, and after decades of being in the shadows, young men and women alike are flocking to tea shops. Everything from bachelorette parties to book signings are taking place being held in them, a sharp rebuke to pricey catering services.

“The younger set is growing as they adventure into the world of tea.” Smith said.

However, according to Whitaker, this is a trend with limits.

“Few people have time to kill.”  She says. “We don’t have a leisure culture. If a place really wants to serve afternoon tea, it would have to be a full scale restaurant serving dinner also, or else have a strong catering business on the side.”–John Winn