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A Té haiku: Brews, snacks, friendly chats I pause to sip and reflect peacefully, at home. - Customer of Té Company
I always take friends and acquaintances there and we without fail will have an inspiring conversation with big dreams. - Another customer of Té Company
Tucked inside a Greenwich Village tenement on the north side of West 10th Street between Waverly Place and Seventh Avenue South is an intimate, four-table spot that offers the best Taiwanese tea in the city and delicious food to go with it. The name of the store, which comes from the Taiwanese Hokkien word for tea, alludes both to the location of the small farms that produce all the tea sold here and to the country of origin of Elena, the shop’s co-owner and driving force. The exclusive selection of teas leans heavily toward the prized Taiwanese oolong, but also includes a few green, black, and white teas, as well as herbal infusions–all rare finds, because Taiwan exports very little of its high quality production.
Elena’s inspiration for bringing this tea to New York came after years of living in the states. Back in Taiwan, she grew up around tea, but experienced it less as an intentional interest than as a pervasive, background cultural practice. Tea is what you immediately gave your guests to make them feel welcome, what you offered as a gift to show your respect, what was always brewing at home. When she moved to the United States as a young adolescent, she would stuff a four month supply of it into her suitcase, enough to last her till her next visit home. When she started working, however, she could no longer replenish her supply as frequently and was then disappointed to find nowhere in New York where she could do so.
Elena knew that this country lacks a strong tea culture. People here drink coffee. Perhaps, she speculated, tea drinking felt vaguely unpatriotic since the Boston Tea Party. Despite this (tea) baggage, she knew that her friends loved her tea whenever she brewed it for them and wondered whether, if made more accessible, it could enjoy the interest that surrounded artisanal coffee. This notion led her to consider switching from her career in corporate retail to something tea related. That would require, of course, first educating herself on the topic. On a fateful day in 2008, she googled “tea”. The number of hits and the prospect of a fifteen year education recommended a much narrower focus. Elena’s cultural background and the relative access to artisanal producers made the choice clear: Taiwanese tea.
Over the next couple of years, Elena researched and visited Taiwanese tea farms whenever her work allowed, learning about the production of tea and training herself in tasting it. When she felt ready, she started selling it wholesale to high-end restaurants. The interest in her tea by restaurants such as Per se, 11 Madison, and Atera was certainly a vote of confidence; but it did not get Elena much closer to her goal of bringing broad attention to her product. For that, she needed to educate people about the teas herself, and this meant selling it directly to the public.
Elena’s first attempt to make her teas accessible to a wider audience took place at a stall at the New Amsterdam market. Initially, the tea did not attract much interest. But she had asked her husband and business partner Frederico, who is a cook, to reinterpret a traditional taiwanese pineapple cake as a cookie. And the result, the Pineapple Linzer Cookie became a hit. Seduced by the cookie, people would stay for the tea.
Encouraged by these results, she set out to find a permanent location, and loved the idea of setting up shop in Greenwich Village, which she had grown to love for its disorienting streets, historic beauty, and surprises around every corner.
“I’ve always had an affinity for older things. People just did it better before (I mean… not your telephones). I liked the environment. I came to school on the east coast, because I looked and thought, I want to go to a school like this, these are buildings where you can learn something. Versus the west coast, where the [buildings]… those don’t look like you can learn very much. There is that romantic notion…”
As luck would have it, Elena found an ideal location in the former home of 2015 Village Award Winner Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks (to which Elena arranged an homage in a corner of her store).
Té Company quickly evolved beyond Elena’s initial expectations. She had envisioned her tea shop as a to-go place. Customers, however, would instead settle in and not want to leave. Her focus had been almost exclusively on tea. But customers started eyeing her own lunch and asking her about food options. Then Saveur magazine did a story on the pineapple linzer cookie, driving home the lesson learned at her market stall: the number of eyes looking at tea is small compared to the number looking at cookies. In response, Elena adjusted her approach. Food would have to provide the means to introduce people to tea. Accordingly, Elena and Frederico experimented with various ways to serve it within the kitchen-less constraints of the space. First, they prepared in their own kitchen food that could be assembled at the shop; then, they started hosting bi-weekly ten course tasting menus on Monday nights, their only day off (a program called “Dinner at Bonnie’s”, also in honor of Bonnie Slotnick); and finally, they rented a nearby kitchen on a part-time basis so that they could offer a Tawanese lunch menu. Throughout it all, however, two constants remained: the unwavering focus on making excellent tea available to the public; and the effort to make the tea house a welcoming, convivial, and relaxing spot for visitors from all walks of life.
Great Taiwanese tea has always served as the guiding principle for the store.
Elena knows that she could make more money selling bubble tea and even more selling coffee; but she feels strongly about staying true to her vision and about the value of the curated experience she provides. This confidence and passion comes across during the tea tastings that she hosts once-a-day during off-hours for small groups–an immersive experience (currently only available on-line) where one learns about Taiwanese history, tea production, and tea farms as one samples from a personalized selection. But it also shines through whenever Elena gently guides the uninitiated through her menu and converts them into tea drinkers.
“We get people who don’t ever have tea, and you get them to try different things. And gradually they bring this into their own lives. And that makes me happy the most, not because I want them to buy the product, but because I think that better tea makes your life a little bit better. I just can’t imagine my life without it. It gives me such joy, that I feel that it benefits people who’ve never had it.”
As for the place itself, Elena has tried to cultivate a low-key, democratic atmosphere that invites everyone to indulge themselves.
“We try to provide a comfortable and easy and casual experience. And it’s an accessible luxury that you can have. So it’s a spiritual break for people. Spiritual may be too heavy of a word. Maybe a mental break from your daily lives. It’s delicious tea. It’s delicious snacks. And it’s a good time. And it’s relaxing and quiet or it’s interesting.”
Thanks to Elena’s efforts, Té Company consistently lures a diverse and interesting cross-section of the city: the wealthy as well as the not-at-all wealthy; long standing residents as well as tourists; tea geeks as well as cookie fiends; readers who drop by from Three Lives Books (July 2019 Business of the Month) as well as conversationalists who drop by for a chat; and people exploring the neighborhood as well as people on a mission. Elena recounts:
“Once this woman came to the store and she was wearing a full-on cowboy outfit, like boots and hat. And she said, “I’m here for some tea, I just moved next door.” And we asked her why she moved to New York. And she said, “I’m here looking for love.” And we were like, “Oh. OK. Good luck.” And then, a year later, she came back. She found love!”
COVID put a temporary end to in-person visits to Té Company. Elena and Frederico had to reorient their business online and were fortunate to see a surge in online patronage from customers who were afraid that the business would not survive. They have recently, however, reopened on weekends and hope to add days in the near future, with an eye towards resuming indoor tea service before long. But no reason to wait till then. If you’re looking for love, make this your first stop before embarking on your search. The results speak for themselves. And if you’ve already found it, let it grow over a cup of oolong and a pineapple linzer cookie. Or two.
Because of Elena’s steadfast commitment to excellent tea and to making it accessible, Té Company is our July Business of the Month. Stop by at 163 W 10th Street or visit their website.
What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc
Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month: