Business Lessons From One of Seattle’s ‘Best’ Teahouses

Pippa’s Real Tea combines some aspects of an authentic English teahouse with Pippa Mills’ own vision of a relaxed inclusive environment for customers and staff. Located in charming historic Port Townsend, Washington, at the northwest corner of Puget Sound, it has become an icon for locals and tourists and was recently voted “Best Tea House in Seattle” for the second year in a row in an online poll.

Photo courtesy of Pippa Mills

Teahouse founder Pippa Mills grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and came to the United States in 1986 and settled in New York City. Mills worked as an independent consultant for Harney & Sons during the mid-1990s. Seeing that the American tea drinking experience lacked in comparison to what she was used to in Australia, she tried to convince some top restaurants in New York City to have loose leaf tea service.

After living in New York for 24 years, she moved to Port Townsend in 2010 with the goal of opening a teahouse. Mills believed Port Townsend was the perfect setting for a teahouse because though it is a small town of 9,000 people, it also draws tourists and has a thriving cultural and artistic community. Port Townsend’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. Mills also used knowledge gleaned from attending the Tea Business Boot Camp at the World Tea Expo in 2010 as a foundation for creating her own teahouse. She opened Pippa’s Real Tea in 2012.

“I knew that as soon as my kids were out of the house I could then take the time to devote 100 percent of my energy to opening the kind of tea shop that I felt was lacking in this country,” Mills said. “I wanted to make tea accessible, first and foremost, to make it fun secondly, and to take away some of the mystery of tea.”

Mills achieves this by having a “sniffing wall” of loose leaf teas that customers can see and smell before purchasing.

“My feeling is that if you like the smell of the tea, the chances are you’re going to like the taste,” Mills said.

Photo courtesy of Pippa Mills

Mills does not categorize teas in the usual way by green, black and herbal. Instead, Pippa’s Real Tea has the “Good, Strong Hair on Your Chest Tea” category that contains herbal teas, green teas and black teas with strong flavors. Another category is “After Dinner Sipping Tea,” which includes herbals and pu-erhs that aid digestion. “Caffeine a No No” is the most important category, Mills said. Her “On the Rocks Teas” are good on ice. “Under the Weather Teas” are for people who come in feeling ill. And there are more.

Mills uses her knowledge of tea to help customers navigate the sniffing wall and figure out what kind of tea they want.

“It’s an experience and they can feel like they’re discovering not only this tearoom, but all these great teas,” Mills said.

Mills serves tea in glass press pots and double walled glass cups so customers can see the tea as it brews and watch the leaves unfurl.

Photo courtesy of Pippa Mills

“We get a lot of compliments on the décor,” Mills said. The Victorian building housing Pippa’s Real Tea has a unique story of its own as it was originally used as a seaport brothel. Mills kept the original exterior and renovated the interior to be modern. Mills went against the stereotypical frilly feminine teahouse décor because she wanted men to also feel comfortable there. Mills mused that her tea bar is often full of men. There is also a fireplace and a courtyard where people can bring their dogs.

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Pippa Mills

For those who want to open a teahouse, Mills shared that the Tea Business Boot Camp taught her that about $250,000 is required to prepare and open a teahouse. It takes about three months to train staff. Boot Camp presenter Charles Cain said tea cannot be sold for less than 2.5 times what the retailer pays for it. Mills also met some of her suppliers at the Boot Camp.

Mills stresses the importance of having enough funds set aside to pay staff for the first year.

“Be prepared to not see profits for the first couple of years,” said Mills. However, she added,  “Sales are up 30 percent over last year—and last year’s were up 20 percent over the previous year.”

Mills hires staff based on personality rather than on previous tea knowledge. She added, “Pay them as much as you can, reward their efforts, praise them, treat them with respect.” Pippa’s Real Tea has been open for five years and most of Mills’ staff has worked with her for four years.

“Have a clear vision of what you want your store to be and then be prepared to be flexible,” said Mills, who added high tea and lunch to her offerings, which were not part of her original plan. Unlike some of the other businesses in Port Townsend that get the bulk of their business during the summer tourist season, Mills retains a strong customer flow year-round and gets much of her business during the colder winter months.


Click here to learn more about the Tea Business Boot Camp.