TeaZone and Camellia Lounge

PORTLAND, Ore. 

Smack in the middle of Portland’s trendy Pearl district, sits TeaZone and Camellia Lounge, a rare hybrid of teashop and bar. Loose-leaf tea brewed to perfection in the front of the house and that same tea steeped in spirits in the back makes for a solid business model offering liquid refreshment from 8 am to midnight.

Jhanne Jasmine and Grant Cull opened TeaZone in 1999. The well-traveled couple knew they wanted to offer tea to the masses and introduce a tea culture beyond the British tearoom model, which they deemed limiting. Seeking a diverse clientele, they designed what they dubbed an “American-style tea salon.” Jasmine and Cull carved out a following with their 120+ loose-leaf tea selection, a breakfast and lunch menu offering salads, sandwiches, soups and baked goods, as well as an extensive selection of teapots and teaware that line the shelves of their small, well-lit shop.

By 2006, they had established a successful, neighborhood gathering spot for seven years drawing clientele from empty nesters, students, professionals to teenagers and moms. They considered extending their hours of operation but knew that tea alone wouldn’t support that business decision.

“We decided to push tea in another direction,” explains Cull, “toward alcohol.” Having spent many an hour tinkering with tea and different foods and beverages, tea-infused spirits were the next logical step in their culinary experimentation, he adds. Spirits called for a bar, hence their expansion out the back door of their 850-square-foot space into Camellia Lounge. The now 1,600 square-foot space encompasses a warm, dark lounge offers live music and keeps its doors open until midnight five nights a week

Darjeeling-infused gin, black currant tea vodka and Rooibos vanilla bourbon are a few of the tea-inspired spirits that flavor drinks served in the Camellia Lounge and the front of the house, which Cull reports is a plus for customers who now have a wider choice of beverages. The addition of Camellia Lounge was, at first blush, an unwelcome shift in the TeaZone culture for some customers, he says. Eventually, Cull and Jasmine won over the skeptics as more customers came to enjoy the spirits menu as well as the longer hours. They also remained loyal to their raison d’être — well-sourced loose-leaf tea.

This diversity of product has undoubtedly added to TeaZone’s successful equation, and Cull notes the multiple sales channels have helped them survive through the recession. Their average $10 ticket reflects the more expensive alcoholic drinks. Yet, bringing on the booze simply complemented an already strong business model where 45 percent of sales are derived from loose-leaf tea. The lounge accounts for 20 percent of sales. With about $500,000 in annual sales, the shop is holding its own as it navigates the challenges of a less-than-robust economy.

English breakfast and Assams are best sellers and although Cull and Jasmine offer organic teas (20-30 percent of their inventory), it’s not necessarily the main selling point for his customers.

Much to Cull’s surprise, bubble tea played a starring role at TeaZone. Their authentic tea concoctions flavored with fruit, milk and tapioca pearls are a big draw — especially in the summer months. At first they resisted the idea of the confectionary beverage, but decided if made with fresh, brewed tea, as opposed to instant tea powder, it deserved a place on the menu. Today, TeaZone’s bubble tea has an official following. It keeps them afloat in the summer while tea lattes keep sales up in the winter. An Affinity tea brewer speeds up the drink preparation process, allowing for freshly pulled shots used for lattes, bubble tea, and the lounge offerings. All other tea is brewed tableside with individual hourglass timers.

Like many a small business, labor is TeaZone’s biggest cost. To get the most from his staff, Cull insists employees earn their stripes in the kitchen and then at the tea bar. Once they have achieved an initial level of tea mastery — a minimum of 3-6 months — they can then move on to Camellia Lounge and acquire mixology skills.

Diversity is the siren song at TeaZone and Camellia Lounge — from clientele to drink offerings and atmosphere. Cull and Jasmine thoughtfully layered elements upon their central theme of quality tea, making for a multi-faceted business model that delights customers all along the tea spectrum.