Quebec’s Camellia Sinensis won two World Tea Awards at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in June. The 20-year-old Canadian business was named Best Retail Tea Shop, Café, Bar and also won Best E-commerce Tea Website.
Helmed by four business partners, Camellia Sinensis has grown from a single teahouse into a conglomerate of tea-focused entities. These include three tea stores, two teahouses, two tea schools, a wholesale operation and an experimental tea factory—all of which engage, enrich and educate the public.
Partner Kevin Gascoyne shares what makes the Camellia Sinensis business so special: “The culture of the company is very much based on respect—respect to the client, respect to the staff and respect to the producers we buy from.”
The original Camellia Sinensis teahouse was founded in 1998 in Montreal by Hugo Americi, who drew inspiration from his travels through Europe, specifically from the Dobra teahouses in Prague, Czech Republic. He made sure his teahouse had the relaxed ambience of a bohemian lounge complete with live gypsy-style music playing into the night.
Before long, Jasmin Desharnais and François Marchand joined Amirici as business partners. The fourth partner, Gascoyne, intially came into the picture as a tea importer who would bring in tasting kits and slide presentations of his international travels. Then in 2004, Gacoyne combined his company with Camellia Sinensis, and the four men officially became a team.
“Each of us has a very different skillset,” Gascoyne said. “We’re all tea tasters and buyers and we all specialize in a different region. We all take care of different parts of the business. We’re almost like family.”
According to Gascoyne, Americi’s original bohemian den gradually transformed into a showroom designed for focused tastings of the “leafy delights” the partners were selecting in Asia.
Now there are three Camellia Sinensis locations. The oldest of which is in Montreal’s Latin Quarter and the other two are in Montreal’s Little Italy district on Marché Jean-Talon and in Quebec City. Each possesses its own unique character. The original Camellia Sinensis, the “Mother Ship” as the partners call it, now has a modern, wood interior with some Asian references, while not being defined by a single country. In a separate space next door to the store is a teahouse, which as a “No Techno Zone,” does not have wifi and requires cell phones to be in silent mode. The Marché Jean-Talon location is the smallest tea store at about 400 square feet. It has dark wood décor and three of its walls are wrapped in teas. The Quebec City store was designed by an architectural firm and has modern clean lines and a teahouse connected to the front.
Besides being beautiful spaces, the Camellia Sinensis tea stores and teahouses are known for their extensive catalogues of teas, 85-90 percent of which are single origin, fresh from the season, hand selected on-site and purchased directly from the producer. The comprehensive selection covers most growing regions and many of the teas are organic. Each year, the company runs its teas through a testing protocol for pesticides and other chemicals, Gascoyne said. Botanicals are sourced locally. Good flavor is the utmost priority, which suits the visceral sensibilities of the Quebecois.
Camellia Sinensis is also prized for its exceptional customer service and knowledge. “We attract tea people from all over the world. On our team, we’ve got sommeliers and tea specialists, chocolate specialists, people from other tea companies in Europe, China and Africa,” Gascoyne said, and feels the World Tea Award for Best Retail Tea Shop celebrated the core of Camellia Sinensis.
The company serves as an educational resource. Its two tea schools offer 21 workshops (most of which are taught in French) covering such topics as the discovery of tea and pairing tea with chocolate, cheese and scotch. Additionally, Gascoyne leads a popular summer school in English. This full weekend of classes features four workshops and two comparative tastings, covering 60 teas total. Classes will also be offered at the company’s tea factory in India, the Tea Studio, for people who want to learn about tea production and to teach people about specialty tea.
On the technical front, this year marked the third time Camellia Sinensis’ website won a World Tea Award. A comprehensive resource for any type of tea customer, the website features an online tea store, information about the three teahouses and workshops, analyses of tea’s properties, recipes and more. And yet, always striving to better serve its clientele, the company will launch a new and improved website later this year.
Camellia Sinensis also fosters a sense of community by hosting clubs. The Tea Club meets once per month to share stories and chat with a tea expert. The After Hours Club, which is usually comprised of international visitors, meets monthly as well.
Perhaps Gascoyne’s philosophy as a tea business owner sums up Camellia Sinensis best: “Always approach a client on their level; communicate in their language with generosity and an inclusive message. Tea is a democratic product, it’s the leaf of the people. Offer a good product and empower the client to feel that they’re welcome.”