Editor’s Note: Teahouses are a touchpoint for specialty teas. They are cornerstones of communities and special destinations. They are also labors of love with a big dose of hard work and tenacity mixed in. In this World Tea News series, Angela Renals of Destination Tea explores these special places where “tea is served” and those special people who serve it up.
Michele Sorenson of Tea at 1024 in Honolulu is, quite frankly, a phenom. She is one of these extraordinary women who diligently pursues her passions until she excels at them, and then is somehow entirely humble about her accomplishments. She took some sewing and fashion design classes after high school and, years later, she launched her own clothing line. She homeschooled her daughters in the back of her clothing boutique, then began offering refreshments to her customers and got the idea to open a tea shop.
She read everything she could get her hands on, rented space next door and, in 1999, launched Tea at 1024 – today, the oldest independent tearoom in Hawaii, having just celebrated its 20th anniversary. From the tearoom’s interior design, cooking and baking, website creation, online marketing, catering business and most recent live Facebook chats — Sorenson is a self-taught jack of all trades. And, oh yeah, she’s an eight-time Ironman triathlon athlete.
I recently met with Sorenson, virtually, to learn how her tearoom has thrived for decades and how she has kept her business going during the pandemic shutdown.
Sorenson’s tearoom is in a late 19th-century building in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii, originally home to her first business: a clothing boutique. As a young mom, Sorenson had begun supplementing her family’s income by designing children’s clothing, wedding and prom dresses, and hula costumes. When her wholesale business began to take off, she thought about opening a shop. At first, she looked at a place in the mall, but learned it would require long hours (10 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week), and she had her daughters to homeschool. When she found her current building, she thought it was super cute, rent was perfect and her daughters could do their work in the back office.
While working on custom orders, she would offer her customers some refreshment, such as tea and sandwiches. Sorenson began thinking about having a tea shop and noted the space next door had a little makeshift kitchen. Before investing any money in it, she had a local Board of Health inspector advise her on what changes would need to be made to meet regulations. She says, “I’m a risk-taker, but I’m a very safe, calculated risk-taker.”
Sorenson’s mother-in-law and mother were huge entertainers, so she felt prepared to host. To prepare to serve afternoon tea, she launched into research mode, buying books or ordering them from Borders and reading everything she could find online in the early days of the Internet. She poured over tea recipes, found wholesale suppliers, went to the gift show in San Francisco, looking for anything tea related. She shopped at restaurant supply stores that offered used equipment, where she eventually bought a commercial sink with three bays in it for $50. She invested in a brand-new refrigerated sandwich prep-station, and her biggest purchase was her bone china. She went to a hotel furniture store, where she found rattan chairs for $10 each, with a heart woven into the round high back. She opened-up the wall between the tearoom and the boutique to give her customers access.
And so, two years after she opened her clothing boutique, she opened Tea at 1024 next door, renting space at the front of the tearoom to two girlfriends for their antiques and vintage dress businesses.
Question: How did the dream of running a tea room differ from the reality?
Answer: Initially, I was very, very excited, dreaming about how I would make it so cute. Then when you make the commitment, that is where the fear sets in. When you financially commit to leasing a spot, then the “what ifs” set in. At the time I opened up the business, I had a lot of other outlets: my clothing line, wholesaling and traveling to trade shows.
I didn’t have to wait to build a customer base; I had 4,000 clothing boutique customers in my mailing list. Over the years, anytime someone wrote me a check, I’d add their address to my mailing list. When I opened-up the teashop, I sent them a launch announcement, which helped me to kickstart the business.
In Hawaii, we are very small, so word spreads fast. As people would tell their friends about us, they’d come in, and we were ill-equipped when they walked in without a reservation. I’ve sliced my hand so many times, rushing, having people come in and not having the staff. Maybe on a given day it would just be me and one other person doing it all, not having the service down to a specific science just yet.
On the monetary side, handling the taxes, the bills, the cost of doing business, health insurance, it’s a lot. When I started closing the boutique, I thought, “Man, it’s so much easier to be an employee and let somebody else worry about all of that for me.” At first it was a little scary not having the clothing business to fall back on, but as your business grows and evolves, it gets a little easier. You begin to see you do have enough to cover your expenses so you’re not staying up at night. It’s much better to stay up at night with creative ideas.
Question: To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
Answer: Number one, you have to have very reasonable rent. My landlord hasn’t raised my rent in over 23 years – that’s my saving grace. The rent kills many tearooms because of the volume they have to do to make rent and cover the other fixed costs of running a business. As my business grew and I needed storage, my landlord charged me a nominal fee to use the unoccupied 675 square feet of space upstairs.
Having a loyal customer base and being able to tap into that source at will is another asset. If I know I am going to get slow on a particular day, I’d do a buy-one-get-one-half-off deal and the tearoom will fill up. Maintaining a database of your customers is essential, to keep the customers that have walked through your doors. It enables you to share what’s going on in your shop and bring them back in. I did pay for advertising too.
There were times when I wanted to quit, when things in my personal life created financial challenges, but I think I am resourceful in finding ways to make money, and I just don’t ever give up.
The tearoom has evolved over time. The overall look, the furniture – I‘m happy that people thought it was really cute. At first, it was shabby chic and mix-n-match, before that was a thing. Actually, it was just a thrifty way of designing, then it became trendy, but I didn’t want to do shabby chic anymore. The design has always been eclectic. I’ve added a section to buy gifts, and all around you there’s stuff hanging and on shelves. I love decorating and rearranging furniture a lot. I like playing with the design. People will come in and say it looks different. I changed the carpet to bamboo flooring, and my husband works in the furniture business, so now I have nice glass tables. Initially, I liked tablecloths on the tables. I did the chair covers and sashes to have everything look the same. When I got new chairs, it made a huge difference. My husband suggested glass tables, which I thought were a little too modern, but we brought them in and suddenly the tearoom looked huge, because you can see from one end of the tearoom to the other.
I once heard in a seminar, “Good customer service is not something you say you have, it’s what your customers say you have.” I’m not the easiest to work with because I’m very particular about the service, and because the kitchen is small, so there is a place for everything and everything in its place. “This is where the teacups go, this is where the spoons go.” But, I’ve been fortunate to have good staff. I’ve had a great manager with me since she was 16 years old. I’ve groomed many young girls right out of high school and through college, and one even opened a tea shop in Colorado. I trained them to be managers. They learn everything: data entry on the computer, the reservations and follow up, food prep, and even cleaning the bathrooms. They say they are grateful because they tell me they have learned a good work ethic here. I never fired anyone.
Over time, I garnered attention, and would get write-ups in the paper, both locally and internationally, and in prestigious magazines like Honolulu Magazine and Hawaii Luxury magazine. I even landed the cover story of our local magazine, MidWeek, when I celebrated my 20th anniversary. However, it was always a dream of mine to be featured in TeaTime Magazine and I was ecstatic when Bruce Richardson contacted me to do a feature for the magazine.
Question: Over time, what adjustments have you made in your business that increased your profitability?
Answer: Being more technologically savvy. Whatever was new, I would figure out how to use it. I just started Instagram last year. My Instagram following is growing, with followers from all over the world. I use Constant Contact for my emails. I built my own website and am in the process of redoing it. I did everything basically myself. I made my own logo. I learned how to do everything because I enjoy the excitement of learning something new, which of course is followed by the frustration of the learning curve. I just think, I have to figure this out myself.
I ask myself, “What if nobody walked in that door? How can I pay my rent?” At first, I still had my clothing line and was still doing retail shows on the mainland, and I had my wholesale business. Slowly, I phased out the clothing line, then my girlfriends moved away and they were no longer helping pay rent.
I spoke at a university once for my clothing design and I told them, there are several ways to start a business: 1. You have an idea and you have the money and resources to dump a chunk of money into starting up a business; 2. There’s me, who started in my daughter’s bedroom closet and evolved. You just keep adding, investing and growing from that point. A lot of times with tearooms, they close because the start-up expenses are too high.
Initially, I had two-tiered bone china plate stands and those are expensive. Then I found wrought iron, heavy-duty three-tiered plate stands at Ross for $12. I picked up 10 of those, and I have a couple of friends go to Ross on the other side of the island and look for me. I only needed two tiers because of how I was plating everything, but it’s easier to stack on a three-tier for larger parties of four or more. I use Lenox ware, the Butterfly Medley pattern, which is $25 per plate at Macy’s, but I found them at Ross for $7.99 and the little plates for $4.99. I also look for sales at Macy’s. I just keep buying, and now that I’ve started doing catering, I have enough to cater to 100 people.
We have a very good culinary school here – Kapiʻolani Community College – and they reached out to businesses, offering a free culinary internship program. Their mission was to take people in the field who were already working in a restaurant and give them training that would advance them. It was an all-day Friday class, in which we learned the basics over four months. The first thing was how to hold and use a knife properly. I couldn’t do their full-time baking class and juggle the tearoom, so YouTube had to be my university. But attending the internship program was the catalyst for me to change my menu. I was able to add and try a few more things.
Question: How have you adapted your business model to stay afloat during the COVID-19 shutdown?
Answer: In February, I had a skiing accident and was not able to walk, so I had already decided to close in March and open only on the weekends with two workers. My manager had knee surgery, so she was also out. Then COVID happened.
I was able to limp around. I said, “Let’s do the curbside to-go.” I was very fearful. How was I going to put an Afternoon Tea experience in this box? I had these beautiful $3 reusable boxes from an event that I had done, and I thought, “My customers are going to be blown away.” So, we did it. I put out the email. My customers were so great. We were super busy that Saturday and Sunday. The first day, I was literally crying, wearing my mask and gloves thanking my customers. I wrote every one of them a personal thank you for supporting my business and keeping my business alive.
Then our mayor shuts all non-essential businesses. As a restaurant, I could still do a takeout business, but I was so torn. I was injured. We closed it all down. I’m so glad I did because I learned so much during that downtime: Zoom Live Tea Chats, where I interview tea business owners, tea experts and enthusiasts from around the world, cleaning up my email list, making masks and giving them away, trying different recipes at home, baking, cooking, taking the time to heal and spending time with my family.
Our April was going to have been huge. We had reservations for large parties, and I had to refund their deposits. May is always busy, especially Mother’s Day, and then I saw all these tea businesses on Instagram, sharing photos of their Mother’s Day Teas to-go. I hadn’t done anything. So, we decided to open for curbside pickup in late May, after Mother’s Day. It was like having a full house in the teashop. Not the same volume as if I were open, but it was good and I was thankful.
Now we are open for dine-in Friday through Sunday (my previous normal hours were Wednesday to Sunday), and we’ll continue to do curbside pickup. I like the curbside. One customer has ordered it three or four times already. Getting that takeout afternoon tea down to a science and making sure it goes like clockwork, I am constantly rethinking that system to be able to make it flow. And now to make it flow and open the shop this Saturday, we’re going to see. We are getting reservations. People wanted to be the first ones, asking to sit in the window. One of our customers has already made three subsequent reservations to come with her different groups of friends.
Now that I’ve cleaned up our email list, we have 3,700 customers in it, and our open rate is 35 to 37%, which is huge. During the pandemic, I used email outreach to let people know about our tearoom updates and when I was doing the to-go’s. I didn’t realize it would be so busy!
Question: How/why did you select your current tea provider(s)?
Answer: Initially, I ordered tea bags from Byron Goo of the Tea Chest. I wanted to do loose leaf teas, but I could not figure out how to serve them in the best way. I began buying bulk from The San Francisco Natural Herb Company and started doing loose tea. Then they closed.
The Metropolitan Tea Company had sent me samples. Their prices were quite a bit higher, but at that point, I didn’t have any choice. I went with them and have been with them ever since. I went to a tea show in Long Beach, Calif., and actually met my sales rep and ordered a lot more stuff from them. Metropolitan Tea Company is part of the ethical trade partnership. They have organic fair-trade teas, and when they choose their estates, they make sure the workers are being paid a living wage and start schools for the families. They are conscientious about how to support the workers on the tea estates. They are also easy to deal with and my shipping rates have come down over time (it can be expensive in Hawaii, the packaging and shipping from the mainland).
Question: If your friend wanted to open a tearoom, and you were to say to her, “Learn from my mistakes…,” what advice would you give?
Answer: Collect emails from people from the start. Social media is good, but it can be hit or miss because your followers are not necessarily your customers yet. Capture their information when they walk in your door. I still have customers come in and ask how long I’ve been around. It’s been 20 years, and they just found me! I want to keep them, so I have little email sign-up cards that we put with the bill. I decided to make it easier for my servers, who weren’t always reminding the guests to sign up for our email list. Now if you sign-up, you get a free afternoon tea on your birthday; you have two weeks to redeem it. I use Constant Contact as my contact database and it automatically generates the birthday email for you. I am constantly adding to the list. Occasionally I promote email sign-ups on Facebook, too.
Make sure you pay your taxes on time – number one. Penalties and interest can hurt you.Your time for fame will come. I used to think, nobody’s writing about me, and then it was like, all these articles were written – even in Australia. People bringing the article in from Australia to come and have tea with me. Because my tea shop is in a historical neighborhood, they were interviewing businesses downtown and they wrote about Tea at 1024. If you do get a bad review, don’t beat yourself up over it. Read what they say, you can check the reviewer’s other reviews and see if they typically are negative. Learn, “I can probably do this better.”I have people come in all the time who don’t get what afternoon tea is yet. I have to educate people on what it’s like to have afternoon tea. They don’t have to be fearful of not knowing how it’s done. I tell them, “Do you like to eat food? Do you like to sit with your friends? Good, so here you’re just holding a teacup instead of a Styrofoam whatever.”
Follow your instincts. If it feels right, it probably is right for you. Ask yourself, “is it because I’m fearful that I have this apprehension?” Opportunities come your way and when a door opens, go through the door. Check it out. You can always turn around and go back. There are always opportunities all around you. I believe this happens in life in general.
Angela Renals is the founder of Destination Tea and a World Tea News contributor. Renals loves the beautiful tradition of afternoon tea – taking time for leisurely conversation with loved ones over scrumptious treats and teas. She founded Destination Tea to make the custom of afternoon tea better known and more accessible to all generations. Destination Tea content includes an online afternoon tea directory for all U.S. states, pictorial tearoom reviews, overviews of the history and customs of afternoon tea, and newly added content for hosting a tea party at home. Learn more at DestinationTea.com.