A severe injury inspired Brad Heller to go into the tea business so he could share the experience of tea with other people. The Tea Grotto in Salt Lake City’s Central City neighborhood offers an inviting setting for making meaningful connections.
Heller, who has owned the Tea Grotto since 2012, previously had a career as a geologist in Utah and New York. A climbing accident became the turning point that inspired him to refocus his professional life onto tea.
About ten years ago, while he was ice climbing his belay system failed and he fell to the ground, sustaining severe breaks in his right leg and ankle, as well as a serious concussion. Prior to his injury, being mobile had defined his active lifestyle both
recreationally and professionally, as his job required a lot of field and environmental work. Then, top orthopedists told him his ankle break was so severe that it had to be fused and to not count on being able to walk again. “I didn’t like that answer very much,” said Heller, who was 29 years old when the incident occurred.
He found a doctor of Eastern medicine in Manhattan, who introduced him to an Eastern healing path, which included a lot of medicinal tea and energy work. “It wasn’t that I initially looked for it, it was just that I kind of fell back on it as an alternative because the prognosis from Western medicine was so bad,” Heller said.
It would take seven months of healing before Heller could walk again. During this period he studied Eastern medicine and philosophy and drank a lot of tea. “During my time I was injured, when I was able to slow down from the pace of the modern world, it was a very meaningful time and a time of enormous growth for me,” Heller said.
“I realized I wanted to have a career change, and that I wanted to share tea with my community.” He added, “Specifically what I liked about tea was how tea had the ability to slow down the fast pace of the world and bring people together to create meaningful human connection; and that was something that I felt like wasn’t so obvious at most coffee establishments.” He expressed that coffee is often used as a stimulus for getting things done; whereas the ritual of drinking tea has a little more humanity, which he appreciates.
At the Tea Grotto, he and his dedicated staff focus on the customers and their experience. Heller refers to himself as “a reluctant capitalist” because his focus is on sharing the tea experience and the lifestyle it brings about, rather than on just the financial component of his business.
The Tea Grotto’s website says, “At our core we desire to be a place that fosters community, as well as allows for peace and sanity for the individual.”
Heller has traveled to tea gardens in China, India, Nepal, Hawaii and Turkey, and has built a broad menu of about 160 high-quality teas sourced from an extensive network of suppliers. Heller, who regularly visits tea houses during his travels, said, “I’ve not really seen a tea house that has a better selection of quality tea than what we offer.” Customers who may not be familiar with tea can get an understanding of tea varietals by tasting the breadth of the menu. The Tea Grotto also offers a variety of house-made tea-infused food, such as chai-infused bunt cake and jasmine green tea sugar cookies with a lavender butter cream frosting, which are made to accompany the teas.
The Tea Grotto’s décor combines rustic earthiness with industrial and Asian accents. Heller worked with a designer to achieve a distinctively eclectic yet warm environment. A blend of earth tones and aged wood are used throughout. Woks with Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling as lamps and as a tip of the hat to pan fired teas. Pieces from a decommissioned Hindu temple in India highlight the space and several plants are placed throughout. There is also a concrete bar and a wall of teas that has a bit of an apothecary feel.
A nook referred to as “the grotto,” which is Italian for “cave” is available for customers who want privacy and seats about six people.
The clientele is demographically diverse, ranging from Salt Lake City’s mayor to teenagers who travel from 30 minutes away so they can buy the Tea Grotto’s boba drinks, which they consume like milkshakes, said Heller.
He offered feedback for those interested in breaking into the tea industry, “It’s a very rewarding and special industry. It’s a great industry to be able to put your heart into and connect with people, and that should be somebody’s motivation for going into it. If you’re really passionate about tea and the power of plants and human connection I think it’s a great medium.” He also added, “The secret to a great business is a great staff.”