A Jewel-box Sized Shop Serves Green Gems

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

In a sliver of real estate set in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Nicole Sung presides over Blest Tea’s loose-leaf teas – a collection of oolongs from her family’s plantation in Taiwan rounded out by a selection of greens, whites and herbals from China and Japan.

The narrow space, painted butter yellow with pine floors, is as elemental as a cup of green tea. A long Formica counter runs the length of the shop and serves as a tea tasting destination where customers sit at the bar, perched on stools, to sample five teas for $3. The back wall, no wider than 10 feet, houses the 100-strong loose-leaf collection.

With space at a premium, Sung keeps her focus on tea where she pulls in 95 percent of sales – the remaining 5 percent of sales is from a modest selection of tea ware. Porcelain sets — both ceremonial and everyday — sit alongside tea tumblers and select teapots. Tidy packages of rose petals, jasmine and other herbal concoctions for solo steeping or to flavor a loose-leaf tea, fill shallow shelves in a corner of the shop.

TeawareSung runs the shop along with her business partner Si Min Xie, a Cantonese woman well-versed in Chinese green tea. Three years ago, she took the reigns of the 6-year-old business from her aunt, a Chinese immigrant who wanted to see her country’s (and family’s) traditional teas sold and consumed in the United States. Sung has a similar drive. She would like to see her young Chinese peers discover the tea of their homeland but not just for tradition’s sake – for health’s sake. Sung is a staunch believer in the power of tea to preserve and promote health. For each tea sold, Sung can offer up their discrete health-promoting properties. She enjoys turning on customers to new teas and says, “If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Sales over the three-year period Sung has been at the helm have been robust with the middle year taking a dip, mirroring the nation’s economic downturn. Sung reports annual sales average about $120,000. Internet sales account for about 10 percent of the tea shop’s annual gross.

Blest Tea customers purchase a lot of tea for daily home use, with average ticket prices registering in the $70-80 range. A typical customer tends to be an older consumer, purchasing for the family, although Sung has watched the tide shift toward the younger generation who are now casting an appreciative glance toward the health benefits of tea. Her customer base draws heavily from the Chinatown environs and spiders out into the close-by neighborhoods of San Francisco.

TeawallGreens and whites dominate sales in the summer months with White Jasmine and Dragonwell the most popular. Her clientele leans toward the sweeter end of the taste bud spectrum and opts for flavored greens such as White Peach or Mango. Oolongs and herbals dominate in winter, and her Tie Quan Yin and Blue People oolongs are first choices. About 20 percent of Blest Tea’s inventory comes directly from the family’s plantation in Taiwan. And, roughly one third of her teas are certified organic. Three different water warmers, a Zojirushi, SPT and Keda provide a full-heating spectrum for her tea brewing.

Blest Teas doors open at 11 a.m. daily and closes at 7 p.m. The busiest part of the day for Sung is 3-4 p.m., when she sees her 200-square-foot shop bustling. Beyond the petite shop’s doors, Sung is making forays into wholesaling her teas, fielding calls from area teashops and considering restaurants as additional revenue streams. Although she hasn’t landed on a particular destination, Sung has plans to open a second Blest Tea shop and continue to reach her peers with the promise of health in a cup of tea.