May 3, 1999 – Edmonton, Alberta. Steeps – the Urban Teahouse opened its doors for business on a hot and dry prairie morning – 1000 square feet, 28 seats, 78 teas, 2 pies, 2 cakes, 3 kinds of cookies, date squares, and an antique sideboard where you could choose your very own tea cup to sip from. It was shiny and new and I was beside myself with glee. I was convinced I had created a winner. This was going to be the era of the hip, modern tea lounge, and Steeps was leading the way. As far as I could tell, I was opening the first tea-only café that served all 78 of the teas we sold, and did not have a full-service food menu. It was, as I was later quoted – “kind of like the Starbucks of tea” – loungy, warm, great music, awesome nibblies, and even better tea service.
Between my 1997 discovery of Dobra Cajovna in Prague and the success of chains like Starbucks, I conceived the notion to build such a tea lounge. All I did was borrow the successful Starbucks café model and apply it to tea. Take what they do really well and switch from the bean to the leaf. It seemed like a no brainer to me, but 11 years ago I could not find a single shop embarking on that path. I inevitably survived and over the next six years I opened four more Steeps tea lounges across western Canada. I am ecstatic to say that the shops introduced thousands and thousands of people to the joys and life-long benefits of drinking loose-leaf tea. Today, there are modern tea lounges all over this great continent – eagerly and quietly changing the lives of millions.
Transparency and the leaf
A decade later I peer around the premium tea universe and I am overjoyed with what I see transpiring. Tea entrepreneurs are finally thinking outside the box; they are realizing – not unlike specialty coffee did 10 years ago – that customers need and want information about the product they are consuming. For our industry to separate the wheat from the chaff, we need to share the story of our tea and provide transparency on its origin – where it is picked, how it is grown, what kind of flavoring is used, and how the workers are treated by the garden owners. I’ve been peddling tea long enough to know that tea sourced from countries that have poor human-rights records, that have trashed their natural environment by dumping toxic waste into the soil, and that have sprayed a host of chemicals on their bushes are not countries I can comfortably buy tea from.
In the end, tea grown under these conditions is probably harming us more than helping us. One of the largest exporters of tea to the western world is doing just that. Tea drinkers need to know this information, and it is our job to educate and promote gardens and tea companies that have enshrined in their constitutions the welfare of their workers and of the natural environment.
Tea truly has come of age – its popularity and demand have never been higher. There are hundreds of opportunities still waiting to be tapped with this wonder leaf. We have a whole generation of kids and teens now choosing tea over soft drinks and coffee. They love the stuff – albeit with a little too much sugar at times, but it is the start of a lifelong ritual. Who or what is going to lead their palates?
If you love tea like I do, that is, if you love to help people change their personal health for the better, and if you are enthralled by tea’s origins, its cultivation, the culture of its pickers, and the geography of its growing regions, then finding your niche in the big wide world of tea should be no further away than your next contemplative, steaming cup. Now go put the kettle on; 2010 eagerly awaits you. All the best for the next decade of tea.