Diary of a Teahouse Owner: an Adventure of Decisions, Crisis Management, Innovation

Editor’s Note: Kevin Gascoyne is a well-known tea industry expert and a frequent speaker at the World Tea Conference + Expo. He’s also one of the founders and creators of Tea Studio in India, and the owner of the Camellia Sinensis Teahouses and Tea Schools of Montréal and Québec City. Here’s a first-hand diary account of the Camellia Sinensis tea shop (which is celebrating its 25th anniversary) – from its early days to closing down during the pandemic, to re-opening as a re-imagined, innovative flagship shop for the company. Here, Gascoyne highlights some of his successes, challenges and key decisions, as well as the drastic changes he made with his team and partners – all of which facilitated a new chapter for this popular Montreal company.

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Aug. 15, 1999 –

A hot August night, I wandered downtown to a new teahouse called Camellia Sinensis, intrigued to meet some tea folk. Having been obsessively buying Darjeeling at source in the Himalayas to sell online for a few years, I thought to myself: “I might even sell them some tea!’”

Well, it was quite a bohemian scene down there! The place was packed for a special event and was glowing with a positive, harmonious vibe. Plenty of interesting teas to drink and the thick, perfumed smoke of apple tobacco from narghile pipes lingered in the air.

Early evening pulsed with smooth electronic tunes from a couple of DJs. Then, the place lit up with a wild, live gypsy band and everyone danced. There was no doubt that this was the only place to be tonight. Everybody in the room felt it.

But this wasn’t just a great night in some crazy student den. Behind the scenes, somebody was thinking of everything. Everyone had been served a drink, and the space, despite being packed, was well organized and thought out. The evening was being conducted casually by somebody with exceptional discretion.

That somebody was Hugo Américi, the founder, who told me of his trip to Prague, where he had seen this concept for a social meeting place with all the elements of a night out, focused around drinking good tea.

Even on a modest budget, Américi’s attention to detail was impeccable and was accompanied by his warm welcome to all, as a natural host. He had joined forces with two very cool partners Francois Marchand and Jasmin Desharnais – they made quite a trio, sharing this same essence of hospitality, enthusiasm, work ethic and team spirit.

Sept. 17, 2001 –

A great friendship has developed between the four of us – me, Hugo, Francois and Jasmin – a business partnership fueled by our shared love of tea and people. We have become a tight team, scheming every minute’s detail, planning carefully, and attacking our work with enthusiasm.

Last week, on the other side of the wall to the original teahouse, in the space next door, our first store opened for business; it looks great and is attracting a lot of attention.

All four partners are now traveling to source annually, developing the regional tasting skills and respective networks of growers, to source the teas for our catalog.

March 15, 2002 –

In the teahouse, Camellia Sinensis, the focus has moved from the parties to the plant. The hubbly-bubbly pipes have disappeared this week, gaiwan and gong fu sets introduced. Our enthusiastic staff of tea lovers has become quite a hub of knowledge, research and tasting. The initial spirit of community still remains from those very first days, but the teahouse is changing. We have been working on a series of workshops and tastings for the public.

Nov. 16, 2004 –

Today we opened our new shop in Quebec City – it looks great! In the Montreal teahouse, we have been working on improving the client experience and showcasing the teas we are sourcing, retaining our trademark blend of warmth, hospitality, and our belief that tea is the drink for all people.

We want visitors to enjoy an environment that enhances the tea-drinking moment. Instead of the regular “café culture” service, the attentions of dining in a fancy restaurant have been introduced, as we give guidance for using the specialized tea ware and explain the background information for the leaves infusing.

The WIFI was removed and a “No-techno Zone’ is now encouraged (we even received national press for this!), allowing clients to be more present and focused as they enjoyed the overall experience. We have renovated, improved the décor and lighting and upgraded the ventilation and sound system.

Camellia Sinensis - Canada
Flash forward to today: the new Camellia Sinensis shop (Photo: Courtesy of Camellia Sinensis)

November 2009 –

After many years traveling to the tea lands, and a good year of writing and group sessions, we have finally managed to turn all that first-hand experience into the first edition of our book – Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties (the book that went on to win a few awards and is now available in five languages).

Back in the teahouse, we are developing pairings and flights to expand the tea experience and to light up the taste buds and fascination of the clients. As the selection-import-distribution and retail of tea increasingly becomes our central business, the teahouse is becoming our experiential showroom.

June 2018 –

Jasmin and I are in Las Vegas for the annual World Tea Conference + Expo. Camellia Sinensis won the prize for “Best Tea Shop,” and we are absolutely delighted. We have won a few prizes at the event over recent years for our blog, book, website, etc., but this was the one we really coveted. This is the international recognition we could take back to our amazing staff to show them how great they were.

Late last night, after a session of tea drinking with friends, we chatted about the “prize-winning” store and began to imagine our perfect tea store of the future. Jasmin gazed off at the Vegas skyline and said, “I would knock the separating wall down and make the teahouse part of one big store.” The dream of a flagship tea store to represent our company’s reputation begins to germinate.

March 31, 2020 –

Our beloved teahouse has seen so many chapters. The space holds years of memories of community, discovery, meeting and coming of age, often a blend of these, to so many. For others, it has become a sanctuary of peaceful moments and contemplation. It has been such an efficient catalyst between tea culture and thousands of tea lovers – both local and international. But business is not a static state; it is an adventure of decisions and crisis management, and innovation keeps it fresh and adapts to the changing environment.

In most recent years, the teahouse has struggled to make ends meet. Despite regular line ups of clients eager to visit, the changing times mean that those precious moments of contemplation we create – with such love and care – barely pay the bills. It requires such an enormous amount of micro-management and many staff to offer such a complete experience to so many people. All this work really doesn’t balance with the modest average spend of the clients. A tea service for two for a couple of hours is such an inspiring way to spend the afternoon but, at the end of the week, it really isn’t a winning proposition financially.

Next door in the store, the catalog of teas sitting on the counter is now the beating heart of the company. It embodies our quest for great leaf and the direct line of respect, source to client, that we have worked so hard to install. Our wholesale and distribution of premium leaf to other tea companies, etc., retail and web sales, is our trade. It is now obvious that the restaurant-style activity of running the Montreal teahouse is very different from all our other operations. Our precious “salon” has become a separate entity from the principal activities, like a small boat pulled along in the wake of a growing ship. We have been holding on, and we have cherished this place through a blend of personal nostalgia and responsibility to our community.

The protocols of this mysterious global pandemic that is upon us, forced to close the doors last year. The stores, with their grocery store status, have remained open. The teahouse clients are all switching to buying teas and setting up their tea spaces at home. Now, we realize that the time has come.

We have absorbed the teahouse staff into our warehouse team, and this week we will announce the official closure of the teahouse. To many, it will seem drastic and, naturally, for us, this is a very emotional decision.

Camellia Sinensis - Tea Shop Canada
Flash forward to today: the new Camellia Sinensis shop (Photo: Courtesy of Camellia Sinensis)

April 2021 –

Closing one door has opened another and quickly become part of a bigger plan – designing the perfect tea store.

The design sessions have started each week for a few hours; the four of us discuss and refine our ideas for the new space. From concept to materials to logistics, we’re distilling all the things we loved about both the teahouse and the old store into a memorable, experiential visit for the clients. At the same time, we’re removing all the details that we had found unnecessary or outdated from over almost 25 years in the business. We have involved the staff right from the beginning, and many great ideas have come from these team sessions.

Beginning with the basic essence of the place. Our producers are continually experimenting, either to improve their legendary teas or to find new flavor experiences with a different tweak in the process or an unusual cultivar. We work so closely with the producers, often making collaborative “project” teas, and now producing and developing our own teas at the Tea Studio, our little factory in the Nilgiri Hills.

Market trends for different teas shift all the time, even in China, the Mothership. In our home market, the focus shifts from one region to another or one style to another. We are all learning constantly, harvest by harvest, year by year. For us, this ever-changing flux is a stream of new information and new experience. The traditional relationship of “master and student” image we find old-school at established specialty stores suggests a point of arrival, but we prefer to see our relationship with tea as an exciting journey. We are simply enthusiasts.

So, this dynamism is incorporated into the design of the new space while retaining the golden elements of that “established” shopping experience – a vast catalog of fresh, directly sourced, world class product and the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff to tell you all about it.

Removing the markers of age-old tradition also removes the imposing “imposter” feeling for the first, inquisitive visit of a novice, allowing all demographics to relate to the space. With our strong belief that tea is for all people, there is no room for snobbery or an “us and them” situation. Moving forward, guiding our community to a next level, enticing all generations with our combination of hospitality, generosity and our classy catalog. “You like tea? Get on the bus as this place is rolling!”

Camellia Sinensis - Canada
Flash forward to today: the new Camellia Sinensis shop (Photo: Courtesy of Camellia Sinensis)

From the spirit of the teahouse, we incorporated that moment of discovery. When drinking tea becomes tasting tea. The most direct connection to this fascinating world. Our stores have always offered the option to smell the tea, and many clients appreciate the opportunity to select their tea sensorially. We were done with the sit-down visit, but wanted to capture that special tasting moment.

Tasting in a tea store is standard procedure in China and definitely brings the client so much closer to the product. We had also seen this concept at the Harneys’ store in Soho, N.Y.C., and have never forgotten it. So, we added the tasting bar concept to the mix, allowing clients to spend a few minutes with two teas served in a professional tasting kit. Either from a preselected list of suggestions – two green teas, two wulong teas, etc. – or, for a small price, the opportunity to taste any tea from the catalog. On the educational side, to continue our workshops, tastings and Tea Club, we also incorporate the educational element into this new room.

Instead of hiring a general contractor for the work, we took on coordinating the project ourselves.  We may have saved some money, but it certainly consumed our lives for months! We spent our days in work clothes and steel toes, filling the gaps, carrying materials, making urgent phone calls and cleaning up at the end of long days.

Finally, the space began to take shape – and the tough decision to close the teahouse, the months of planning, the ordeal of coordination and physical work all started to make sense. The dust settled and our beautiful new flagship store emerged as the vessel for our message and was open for business.

Camellia Sinensis - Canada
Flash forward to today: the new Camellia Sinensis shop (Photo: Courtesy of Camellia Sinensis)

Kevin Gascoyne, a frequent speaker at the World Tea Conference + Expo, is one of the founders and creators of Tea Studio in India, and he’s also the owner of the Camellia Sinensis Teahouses and Tea Schools of Montréal and Québec City. To learn more, visit TeaStudio.info or Camellia-Sinensis.com.

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