Crepes and Tea

VIRGINIA BEACH, Vir.

Christina Li places a bunch of white tea leaves, a dried peach blossom and a sprinkle of osmanthus leaves in a French press, pours hot water over the potpourri-looking mixture, and waits for magic to happen.

“Look at how pretty this is,” says Li, owner of Le Thé et Crêpes, a tea house and crepe restaurant in Virginia Beach’s Chick’s Beach neighborhood, as she watches the tea leaves and flower expand and bloom into an underwater floral arrangement.

It’s this kind of magic — and the delicate taste of the resulting tea — that has netted Le Thé et Crêpes glowing reviews on sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon, and in The Virginian-Pilot a local newspaper.

But Le Thé et Crêpes’ success was anything but certain when it first opened in 2008.

“Being Chinese, I’m used to having tea every day,” says Li, a petite woman with a ready smile and infectious energy, who gave her age a “fifty-something.” “From 2 to 5 p.m., I’m always craving coffee or tea, and something to eat that isn’t too sweet. I asked myself: Why is it that nobody sells a cup of premium tea here — the beautiful loose tea leaves we Asians always drink?”

She opened from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily for high tea, offering tea and the dessert crepes she used to make for her three sons, all of whom have worked in the restaurant at some point.

The concept didn’t work.

The tiny tea house, which consists of just five tables and a bar with a few stools, stayed stubbornly empty every afternoon, Li says.

Li knew she had a quality product, having traveled far and wide in her native China to hand-select the best AAA-grade tea leaves she could find, and offering them with flowers she remembers from her youth in Hong Kong, when her grandmother would make her tea from honeysuckle, chrysanthemum or goji berry to soothe a sore throat.

But after about a year of empty tables, Li came to a conclusion: Virginia Beach residents didn’t want high tea.

“The first six or seven months, we were dying,” Li says.  “We would sit and sit and sit, and customers never came.”

She flip-flopped her business model, adding wine ($6 to $9 per glass), savory crepes and other main dishes, such as a rack of lamb, to the menu and opening daily for lunch and dinner. The customers, and the positive reviews, started rolling in.

Now, Li offers roughly a dozen wines, several entrees and a wide variety of sweet and savory crepes. Lunch crepes range from $10.95 to $16.95, dinner crepes from $13.95 to $ 23.95, dessert crepes from $8.95 to $10.95. Tea starts at $3.95 for one.

The heart of the business remains her tea, which she says accounts for 70 percent of her beverage sales.

She offers green, white, oolong and black tea with a wide variety of flowers, from the floral rose bud to the fruity osmanthus, evocative of apricot. New customers are treated to a primer in the flavor and medicinal properties of each kind of tea and flower, which Li illustrates using a tray full of a dozen heart-shaped canisters of tea leaves and dried flowers. Customers learn that she shuns added fragrances and sugar (though she’s happy to offer customers honey), and that they’ll never spot a tea bag in her restaurant.

World Tea NewsLi favors brewing loose leaves in a French press, which lets customers watch the dried leaves expand into watery works of art as they steep.  They pour the tea into glass cups. Coffee is served in Mikasa china cups, and wine in crystal glasses.

Business still isn’t perfect, Li says, and the sour economy has been difficult to weather. She copes by keeping overhead low — her only employee is her youngest son, Lawrence, 21, who serves as head waiter — and by continuing to focus on brewing the best tea in town.

“In this little town, there’s no one else who does what we do,” Li says. “People appreciate that.”

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