Tea for Two at Seattle’s Teahouse Kuan Yin


Many a Seattleite marks Teahouse Kuan Yin as the site of their first date. The Wallingford neighborhood teashop has fueled budding relationships and offered quiet inspiration for graduate students, freelancers and writers who have penned several books on the tranquil premises.

This cozy “no cell phone zone” with quiet music on the stereo is conducive to a lover’s first meeting, or an author laboring over just the right turn of phrase. The last three editions of the Boy Scout Handbook were written here, as well as several books including Mountain Madness and Anxious to Please, according to owner Marcus Allen Gramps. The shop is a haven for those who want to settle in for long stretches with a hot cup of tea.

Gramps, 56, and his wife, Denice Keepin, bought the shop in June 2006. The previous owners had served tea to the neighborhood for 16 years, christening the teahouse after the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Gramps held on to the name to honor its history and to reassure regulars that the teahouse would remain as they knew it. And, those regulars are the heart and soul of Kuan Yin, says Gramps, who is a practicing mental health therapist. A tray of personal teacups, perched on the counter, is a testament to the habituated tea drinkers who simply pick up their own drinking vessels upon ordering.

In keeping with the neighborhood feel, Teahouse Kuan Yin invites local artists to hang their work on the walls with shows switched out bi-monthly. In a recent show, a local photographer focused his camera on loose leaf tea with green, white and black teas there were curled, stacked, and spilled out atop cotton t-shirts.

Teahouse Kuan YinThe 1,000 sq. ft. space seats about 40 tea drinkers whose average tickets tally $10 without merchandise, and $14 with teaware. Gramps carries a wide range of merchandise simply because he likes teaware.

“Our focus is to try to offer the best tea in each category — Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Taiwanese — and our merchandise reflects that philosophy. We pick the best of the regions’ offerings,” he says. 

In December these included some early winter oolongs from Taiwan and from India a second-flush Darjeeling from Margaret’s Hope, and first-flush harvest teas from Avongrove and Risheehat. The shop also introduced Bellagio premium chocolate from Caffe d’Amore.

The best teas deserve proper preparation and Gramps takes pride and pleasure in teaching his customers how to drink fine teas whether whisking matcha or serving oolong in hand-washed clay teapots. Pouring from a modified gaiwan, he encourages customers to sample the latest discoveries. Gramps frequently collaborates with instructors like Christopher Gronbeck, founder of the Seattle Tea School, for tea-tasting classes held on the weekends. The school offers an ongoing series of classes to inspire new tea lovers and help all tea drinkers gain a deeper appreciation of the beverage, he explains.

Gramps' behind-the-counter equipment includes an energy efficient Zojirushi water boiler with default settings for 175º/195º/208º temperatures.

Teahouse Kuan YinNourishing Customers

Top-selling teas at Kuan Yin are the Fine Assam, Cream of Assam, Organic Sencha, and Taiwan Oolongs. About 10 percent of Gramps’ inventory is organic, with thoughtfully picked organic choices in each category.  Yet Gramps maintains it’s difficult to find good tasting organic tea. “I make buying choices based on taste, first,” he says.

He uses online marketing and has an active Facebook page. Kuan Yin offers teas wholesale online and recently re-branded his line “Origins Tea” to “better reflect the wide range of wonderful teas that we offer.”

Annual sales for Kuan Yin top $240,000. Gramps has seen sales increase about 15 percent each year. The growth is even but not fast-paced enough to meet increased costs. In order to break free of breaking even, Gramps has expanded his food service operation.

Teahouse Kuan YinThe current eclectic menu of pastries (wheat- and gluten-free to vegan and conventional), grilled foccacia, vegan samosas, curries but little bites hasn’t satisfied the regular clientele. He observes that passersby are often in search of heartier lunch to go along with their tea. He is considering a sandwich bar and possibly a salad bar. He has been very pleased with sales of his daily selection of homemade soups.

Managing the staff comes easy to Gramps who, along with his wife, spends his non-teahouse hours as a psychotherapist.  Superior people skills allow him to gracefully handle the challenges of managing employees. One staffer works the counter half time and two staffers take over on the weekend. Gramps estimates his labor costs are about even with his overhead and food and tea.

Because of Kuan Yin’s reputation as a destination of choice, his online sales are minimal at five orders per week but growing. Regulars who move away frequently become his online customers. “I haven’t figured out how to push the online sales,” he admits.

Lunch traffic is heavy but Kuan Yin quiets in the afternoons when customers arrive to re-stock their loose leaf tins from a selection of 120 teas displayed in silver urns on the tea wall behind the counter. The shop is busiest on weekend afternoons from noon to 5 p.m. but stays open late (10 p.m. nightly) to accommodate the potential of new love.

Teahouse Kuan Yin

Teahouse Kuan Yin

1911 N. 45th St.
Seattle, WA 98103
Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Teahouse Kuan Yin has brought fine loose leaf tea to Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood since 1990 and now sells tea online and wholesale.
Phone:(206) 632-2055
Email: teahousekuanyin@gmail.com

Seattle Tea School

Seattle Tea School

An ongoing series of educational tea tastings, classes, and special events limited to seven attendees to maximize individual attention.
Christopher Gronbeck, Organizer
Phone: (206) 925-9290
Email: christopher@SeattleTeaSchool.com