Tea bloggers often talk about starting up their own tea businesses, but few follow through on that dream. Virginia “Gongfu Girl” Wright decided to do just that in 2010 when she registered the website for Phoenix Tea. In 2011, she approached another blogger with teashop aspirations – Brett Boynton – to open a brick-and-mortar storefront for the site.
They chose the Seattle suburb of Burien for their location. A commercial space in “Olde Burien” became available, right along one of the main roads. Burien was already a town known for its eclectic feel and historic buildings. Wright felt the town needed a teashop that focused on actual tea, particularly one with an emphasis on single origin offerings from far-flung locations.
Teas sourced from China and Taiwan were their primary focus, along with other lesser-known tea growing regions – such as South Korea. Of particular note: They chose to carry a wide range of heicha (“dark tea”) – other than pu-erh – from Hunan and Anhui provinces, China.
Upon entering the shop, one is bombarded with a variety of sights. To the left of the main entrance – by the shop window – sits a statue of Lu Yu (the ancient tea scholar). Further down is the main tea bar itself – a massive, cherry wood-colored structure where the register lies. A transparent display case beneath the bar shows off various teapots and gongfu sets for sale. Behind the counter resides a display case with ancient teaware and other tea brewing contraptions; it is aptly titled “The Tea Museum”.
Bulk teas rest behind the counter, whereas pre-packaged bags lay on racks. On the right side of the shop are display cases featuring other teaware and brewing equipment from South Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan. Along the back wall are the various pu-erh and heicha cakes and bricks they have available. The most impressive being large logs of pressed heicha in bamboo mesh.
Phoenix Tea owners Virginia Wright and Brett Boynton are served tea by Chris
To date, Phoenix Tea’s bestselling offering is a blend of three Chinese black teas dubbed “Burien Breakfast. Unlike many teashops with unusual focuses, 80% of Phoenix Tea’s sales come from the retail space itself, whereas 10% of sales are derived from wholesale accounts. The remaining 10% comes from online orders.
In addition to the retail space, Phoenix offers a range of services including classes, focused tastings, and a little bit of tea catering on the side. Their most popular focused tasting sessions are their rare tea tastings. Phoenix Tea is also currently working on expanding the wholesale side of their operation to restaurants and cafes, as well as expanding their product line.
Virginia Wright and Brett Boynton both feel that the best advice one could give to new retailers is to “have a distinct focus.” Starting a teashop is a lot of work, and having a sense of what that shop’s identity is helps to develop what it will become. A teashop needs its own character, much like the neighborhood it resides in.
902 SW 152nd St. Burien, Wash. 98166