By Aaron Kiel, World Tea News
Business partners Haley Heter and Cat Lonc recently launched The Teahouse at Clifton Square in Wichita, Kan. The two friends say they were inspired by the fact that tea is a common denominator in traditions and cultures around the world, and they believe that most consumers never stop to think about tea’s vast influence as one of the most consumed beverages worldwide.
The two co-owners note that tea defies trends and fads. They believe tea’s presentation may change over time or vary by culture and country, but that it will always hold its place as the “silent host” at gatherings of family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and couples everywhere.
As a result of these ideas, and being inspired by tea and their love of the beverage, Heter and Lonc started The Teahouse at Clifton Square in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic – and they’re finding significant success as they bring the health and wellness benefits of tea to the Wichita community.
World Tea News chats with Heter and Lonc to learn more about their tea business, the challenges of launching during the pandemic, and how they created a warm and welcoming experience for customers in a Victorian-era house turned teahouse in Clifton Square in the historic district of College Hill.
Question: Hi, Haley and Cat. Thanks for your time! And congratulations on launching your teahouse. First off, tell us about The Teahouse at Clifton Square. What was your vision and do you feel like you’ve succeeded?
Cat Lonc: We wanted to create a space where tea could shine. We first began to think about tea in busy pre-COVID days as a way to slow things down. There is no real way to rush the process of bringing the leaf to bloom. We discovered that in today’s new reality, there is an appreciation for the process itself. It’s worth the wait for the not-so-instant, and people seem to find joy in the slightly unexpected as they search for comforts close to home. We are fortunate to have secured a unique location in one of the Victorian-era transplanted houses that make up Clifton Square in the historic district of College Hill. Conceived by Wichita icon for women in business, the late Jo Zakas, the center under its new ownership continues to offer a one-of-a-kind shopping and dining experience as far from cookie-cutter as one could imagine. Our success is enhanced by the sense of community among the plaza’s owners, tenants and patrons, which resonates with our guiding principle of “friendship first.”
Question: Have you had any formal tea training? I know you’ve both travelled a lot and learned about tea from visiting different cultures.
Haley Heter: Much of our knowledge of tea has come from our own research and from participation in virtual classes and webinars taught by instructors from around the world. Before we decided to learn as much as we could about tea, we had no idea how large and complex the tea world proved to be. Our most valuable resources were our fellow tea entrepreneurs, educators, blenders and distributors – both locally and from across the United States – who so willingly shared their experience and expertise with a “pay it forward” philosophy. We have on staff the tea sommelier and founder of Golden Monarch, a Wichita-based company dedicated to tea education and culture, who is a wealth of knowledge for us and partners in offering classes to our customers and the community.
Question: Your teahouse has an extensive menu. What can you tell us about developing that menu? And what specialty tea companies did you select to supply your teas?
Haley Heter: To round out our international loose leaf hot and cold tea selections we opted to add an extensive choice of flavored tapioca pearl bubble teas (boba) to our menu. This was a way to merge the traditional image of a teahouse with a new more modern take on tea that would offer something for everyone. We are always searching for local products, such as honey and baked goods to complement our menu. Some of our closest friends in the tea space are long established distributors, such as LA-based Art of Tea, as well as local Wichita suppliers from which all our blends are sourced. Examples are Tea Taze, Leaf Logic, Discover Nepal Tea and Earthwise. We make every effort to purchase our equipment and supplies locally from suppliers, including Reverie Roasters, whenever possible. These relationships give the local tea community its collective character.
Question: What kind of retail products do you sell?
Cat Lonc: We strive to maximize every square foot of our space. While we prepare our customer’s selections, they have the opportunity to browse our vast selection of tea ware and accessories both traditional and modern. Additionally, we sell an array of scented candles, novelty mugs, stationary, home décor, jewelry and gifts. Need something special for a family member, teacher or even your pet? We have that! We even have a selection of cigars, which can be enjoyed with your favorite cup of tea on our patio.
Question: You launched your business recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Were you nervous about that? And what challenges did that present?
Cat Lonc: The concept of The Teahouse at Clifton Square and initial business model were conceived pre-COVID, but just as we found our dream location and began negotiations to secure the newly vacated space, the global pandemic began to take hold in our own community. This should have been a deal breaker, but there was something magic about the character of the location that spoke to us, and the vision we had for it was just too compelling to walk away from. It was a gut feeling and a risk we were willing to take. Launching during COVID-19 seemed daunting in light of the “new normal,” so we called upon local tradespeople and talented friends who took an interest in our concept and brought their skills and creativity to the project, as well. It really was like the stars had aligned. The project felt like a team effort and it took on a spirit of its own. It had a sort of magic quality.
Question: What advice do you have for other teahouses or tea-related businesses that might be facing challenges during the pandemic?
Cat Lonc: We are still learning, but if we were asked to share our advice on navigating the opening of a new business in the midst of uncertain times, it would be to embrace the participation and support of the local community in your venture. You may be surprised by how many show up to help “raise the barn,” so to speak. Go for it and be the fearless entrepreneurs they believe you to be! Take some risks, be willing to adapt. Believe in what you do and don’t be afraid to break out of the norm.
Question: What’s been the interest in tea from your local community? I understand that sales have been positive so far. Do you think more consumers are learning about tea and purchasing loose-leaf tea?
Haley Heter: We can’t say how many times customers have said that they have been waiting for something like The Teahouse to open. Wichitans of all ages are curious about tea and have been craving a fun and unique atmosphere to enjoy it in. They are eager to learn about the growing and harvesting process and the unique conditions, which give the leaves their distinct characteristics and health benefits. Loose leaf teas simply take the tea drinking experience to a whole new level. The flavors drawn from our hot and cold selections can stand on their own without any add-ons. As more and more people – particularly the younger demographic – develop a love for tea, they discover what their grandmothers have known all along. We believe that new traditions will only fuel stronger sales going forward.
Question: You sell tea boxes, including one for men and one for women. What’s been the response to both of those?
Cat Lonc: Thus far, the bulk of our business centers around the cup and saucer in-person experience. We built an extensive open-air patio space with comfortable seating and firepits creating an intimate yet socially distant atmosphere. While walk-up and take-away service has been something we continue to develop, our newly fleshed out website made its online purchasing debut with our Seasonal Christmas Box for men and women. The interest in this custom gift-giving option has inspired us to incorporate the idea into our seasonal offerings with Valentine’s and Mother’s day just around the corner.
Question: How have you marketed The Teahouse at Clifton Square? What creative things have you done to promote your business and build your customer base?
Haley Heter: We have been featured in various local news outlets, highlighting who and what we are. We use all of the social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to reach out to our existing and potential customers and to build a following. We have a loyalty program built into our Point-of-Sale system, which allows us to reach out to customers and offer exclusive discounts and promotions. Friends and family, as well as employees of neighboring businesses, receive a discount on all purchases. We also offer gift certificates for ease of gift giving and select at random from our customer base winners of complimentary tea related prizes.
Question: You host a number of events at your teahouse and also host private events. Tell us about that and how it helps your business thrive.
Haley Heter: We strive to offer unique experiences from tea education classes, tea and cigar pairings, Sunday morning yoga on the patio to live music featuring local talent. All of this helps make The Teahouse stand out as a fun and walkable community destination. Our eventual goal is to become a favorite choice for small celebrations and gatherings, where patrons can reserve a space and pre-order a selection of tea, sandwiches and desserts.
Question: Thanks for your time! Last question: What sets The Teahouse at Clifton Square apart from other teahouses or tea shops?
Cat Lonc: In addition to our trademark illuminated patio tree, which lights up Wichita’s Douglas Avenue year-round, the skateboards and bicycles leaned up against our 100-year-old porch, the pets taking a break from their morning walk while their owners take in the sun-drenched patio, we take pride in the fact that we are not your average cookie-cutter business. We have considered someday opening another location but can’t imagine how we could possibly replicate the charm of our Teahouse at Clifton Square… perhaps, though, that is the whole point.
To learn more about The Teahouse at Clifton Square, visit TheTeahouseCliftonSquare.com.