It has been a while since my last post. Ever so much has been going on in my life, and it’s starting to settle back down. Parts have been joyous and parts have been traumatic. I’m not going to try to stuff everything into a single blog post, but I’ll give you a glimpse right now and fill in the rest as I have a chance.
My main blog, at GaryDRobson.com, has been neglected as well, but I’m currently working on a series of updates there that my tea friends and followers might be interested in.
For those who haven’t heard, my book and tea shop, Red Lodge Books & Tea, was acquired by a cooperative in Billings, MT last year. I was excited and enthusiastic. I’d be managing a new shop twice the size of my old one, located right in the heart of Billings’ historic downtown. The 60-mile commute was a pain, but I could live with that.
Unfortunately, that relationship went down the toilet in March. The cooperative owes me a lot of money, including almost half of the money they agreed to pay for my old store, plus repayment of a loan I made to them and money we put on my personal credit card to buy products for the store. They haven’t even paid me my last two paychecks from February & March. But let’s not dwell on that right now.
I’ve spent over fifteen years on the retail side of the book trade, and that’s a long time. I’m still writing and publishing books, but I decided it was time to put my focus somewhere else. My daughter, Gwen, and I decided that it was time to open a new tea shop and drop the book part of the business, and thus was born the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern.
The name is a dual reference to phoenix pearl tea (a tightly-rolled jasmine green that I’m quite in love with), and to the fabled phoenix bird rising from the ashes of the old store.
What with opening the new shop and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to blog about tea. That doesn’t mean, however, I haven’t been learning, experiencing, teaching, and collecting ideas to share on Tea with Gary. Life is still pretty crazy, so I’m not committing to a regularly weekly update schedule, but I am telling you that there will be a lot more posts coming on this site.
It’s good to be back.
As I write this, it’s getting pretty late, so I’m not drinking tea. Instead, I’m enjoying a steaming mug of green rooibos. It’s mild and a bit woody without a hint of astringency, and like its red cousin, it contains absolutely no caffeine. Green rooibos one of my favorite bedtime beverages. I made this cup with 16oz of water at about 200°F and one tablespoon of leaf, steeped for four minutes.
From the day we bought our bookstore ten years ago, customers started asking if we planned to put in a coffee shop. At the time, the store was only 475 square feet, which would have made it impossible even if we had wanted to. When we moved to a bigger location the following year, requests stepped up. Since I don’t like coffee, and there’s a great coffee shop a block away, I continued to say “no” to the idea.
So how did we end up with a tea bar in our store?
I have long been a tea aficionado, and the store has been carrying loose tea in tins for over a year. After regular requests from customers to try the teas, my wife Kathy and I started looking at possibilities. Having just moved to a larger building yet again (the store is now about 2,000 square feet), we determined that a serving counter would, indeed, work.
After securing all of the required permits, and spending several months researching bulk teas, we put together a menu of about 80 different teas and pulled together all of the infrastructure. Since an 8-page tea menu can be overwhelming, we put up a “Staff Favorites” board with eight teas that the employees like. The back wall of the store is lined with shelves displaying jars of tea, and a large world map shows where many of the teas come from.
Red Lodge Books has always had a heavily local feel, and we wanted to carry that over to the tea bar. Since you can’t grow tea plants in Montana, we decided to bring the local flavor in through the accessories. We sell alfalfa/clover honey from a nearby ranch, and handmade pottery teaware from a local artisan, and we are carrying Montana-grown sage and apple mint teas from On Thyme Gourmet in Bridger.
Everything in the tea bar is designed around making the tea look good for bulk buyers. We serve our hot tea in clear glass mugs and iced tea in clear “to go” cups to show its color and clarity. Displaying the bulk tea properly raised some questions. Tea leaves should be stored away from sunlight, yet they sell much better when customers can see the product. To solve this, I bought smaller jars that show the tea well, but we store the majority of the backstock in airtight, opaque bags in the storage room. The back wall never gets direct sun, and the inventory turns fast enough to prevent the tea from getting stale in the jars. Allowing customers to see the tea definitely helps with sales.
Since many customers are unfamiliar with the different types of tea, we chose to prepare the teas ourselves rather than just tossing a bag in a cup and handing it to the customer. We use tea timers (or tea timer apps in our phones – yes, there’s an app for that), and adjust the quantity of leaves and steeping time based on what kind of tea the customer orders. That way, each customer gets a cup of tea that’s prepared just right, which makes them more likely to want bulk tea to take home for later.
In building the menu, I brought in some lesser-known varieties simply because they were personal favorites. If they didn’t sell, I figured he could always drink them myself. Much to my surprise, I found quite a few like-minded tea aficionados in town that were very excited to discover a local source for obscure teas. Although most of the best-sellers are predictable favorites like Earl Grey and Moroccan mint, drinks like lapsang souchong, aged pu-erh, and roasted maté are selling very well also.
To keep the tea theme going, we brought in a large collection of related items as well. Kathy tracked down several suppliers of shortbread, which goes better with tea than the biscotti served at coffee shops. Several of the shortbreads have tea baked right into them. We also carry tea filters, glass pots, flowering teas, handmade maté gourds, and (of course) a selection of books about tea.
We are also working to maintain a “green” tea bar. We save and compost all of our tea leaves, and the go cups (including the clear ones) are all compostable.
Once again, we’ve found a way to turn one of my personal passions into a part of the business. And the best part is that – as best I can tell after only a month in operation – it seems to be working!
[UPDATE May 2012: You can visit our tea bar online now!]