Fascinated by the tea plant, and the history of tea for one entire decade now, I know there is still much yet to learn. When I stumbled upon another aspect of tea and American history; I smiled to myself: so much lies beyond the leaves and so much exists because of the leaves.
The true heart of beautiful San Diego is its original heart – the first European settlement in this area is what we refer to as, “Old Town.” Its proper full name is, Old Town San Diego Historic State Park. It is a California State Park, a state-protected historic park and it is also registered as a California Historical Landmark.
This nostalgic place of yesteryear is definitely a destination for tourists, but locals in San Diego who stay away from this area are missing something wonderful. Tucked among the original buildings – most of which were homes for our first settlers in this area – are now thriving businesses – you will find The San Diego House of Coffee, Tea & Spices.It is a treasure trove of tea – with well over 400 varieties of loose-leaf teas from all around the world. Yes, you will find a great selection of coffees and spices there, too.
I learned about the original building while training the staff and teaching them about tea, and what I learned truly piqued my interest. Having been to Old Town many times in the 23 years I have lived here, a crucial piece of the history of San Diego House eluded me. It is not just American history that touched this building – it is African American History.
Supposedly, California was a ‘slave-free’ state in the mid eighteen hundreds. That doesn’t mean slavery didn’t exist. Enslaved African Americans were brought here from other slave states – mostly because of the California gold rush. Brought here to find gold, many slaves were actually able to buy their freedom – as did the original black owners of San Diego House, Allen Light and Richard Freeman. However, their freedom was not purchased with gold – it was earned with skill and very hard work. During a remodel, construction workers found Mr. Light’s official and original ‘freedom papers’ under a window sill not very long ago. Two ‘free’ black men owned a thriving business before the official abolition of slavery – that’s the part that most fascinated me.
San Diego House was the first black-owned business in San Diego. But there is more.
San Diego House of Coffee & Tea opened 150 years later by another black owner, Leroy Brown. In his shop, Mr. Brown proudly displayed the original freedom papers as a tribute to Mr. Light. I understand Mr. Light was a delightful storyteller and shared these aspects of history with his many customers who came from all over the world. Leroy Brown and his large family owned and operated this coffee and loose-leaf tea shop for many years. I’d have to say that when it came to finding loose-leaf teas in the mid 1990’s, he was one of very few in this country, much less San Diego.
Chris Tafoya has since purchased Historic San Diego House of Coffee & Tea from the Brown family and is currently preparing to franchise. The connection to African American history departed with Mr. Leroy Brown when he sold his beloved shop to Mr. Tafoya, who owns a few other businesses in the Old Town San Diego Historic State Park. It is my personal opinion that the concept he is attempting to franchise is indeed a winner; I don’t believe I have seen anything quite like it in this country as of yet.
We love nostalgia. We love history. It is certainly not news to anyone that America loves its coffee too, but tea is right there at its heels. I believe Mr. Tafoya’s vision will be successful in any state in this country – coffee, tea and spices – there is something for everyone. I understand there might be a few surprises added to the offerings that are sure to enhance what is already thriving in our historic area of San Diego.
If any readers are interested in obtaining franchise information from Mr. Tafoya, I’d be most happy to make an introduction.
Just as tea itself changed the course of history in so many aspects around the world, and as we observe how the past helps create the future, I think tea will continue to do so in some subtle ways and in ways that are actually not so subtle at all.
Images courtesy of the author.
Interesting history of this unique shop. I lived in San Diego for 4 years back in 1977. I regret not having stumbled upon this little gem. Certainly worth a visit when I find myself in San Diego again. Thanks for turning us on to this historic treasure. I will be eager to hear how the franchise opportunity evolves.
Thanks so much for sharing about this. San Diego is my hometown and I had never heard the history behind that building. We come back into SD a few times a year and I will definitely be stopping in on the next visit.
Like Naomi, San Diego was my old stomping grounds. I remember walking the old historical site at, like 6:30 in the morning. Blown away by it. I wish I’d been a tea drinker then, or I would have spotted the original landmark.
Thanks, Naomi and Geoff. I was thrilled to discover this story! I am attempting to find anyone from the Brown family to just sit down and have tea with them and allow them to share more stories of their tea adventures in Old Town. I appreciate your comments and most happy to share this story with T-Ching — and beyond!
Hello Michelle …. see most of us that are here or have been here in San Diego for sometime didn’t know this interesting and enlightening tidbit of historic information. I was so excited to learn of it and will still be delving into this story! My best to you as always.