By Janis Hashe
Cha-ya caters to sophisticated green tea drinkers
Born and raised in Toyko, Mitsuko Gammon moved to the United States 40 years ago, only to find her options for quality tea were very limited. For many years, she had relatives send her the teas she wanted from Japan. But in 2005, she and her husband noticed a promising retail site in Pacific Gove, Calif., and she opened Cha-ya, which means “tea shop” in Japanese.
Gammon not only had previous retail background, but she was trained in the arts of ikebana and the classic tea ceremony, all skills she utilized in arranging the new space and deciding what to carry. She was aided, she says, when a major importer of Japanese green tea opened an outlet in Los Angeles, and she was able to order teas from the premier growing area Shizuoka directly from them.
“I specialized in high-end green teas, which I still do,” says Gammon. “I also love ceramics, so I have always carried serving items, including those made by local artists.”
Cha-ya was an almost immediate success, so, when in 2008, she spotted a larger space across from the main post office in closeby Monterey, Calif., she leased it. In 2012, prompted by her access to Japanese antique furniture and decor items that now formed a profitable percentage of her sales, she leased the space next door, knocked down the adjoining wall, and Cha-ya emerged in its present 1,000-square-foot form.
Gammon has always used Cha-ya to teach her local customer base, which represents about 80% of her business, about the proper preparation of Japanese teas, noting, “steeping and temperature are very important.” She and her assistant prepare and sell teas for shoppers at the store’s small counter area. “As you know, matcha has become very popular,” says Gammon, who charges $4 a cup for the brew and also sells half-pound bags of matcha.
Gammon holds special events at the shop almost every month. In August, she hosted the owners of Azuma-Chaen, a 12-acre boutique tea farm outside of Kyoto, for an in-store tasting and demo. Teruko Azuma and Mika Hasegawa explained how premium green tea is grown, harvested, and prepared in two Sunday seatings.
Gammon herself often demonstrates the Japanese tea ceremony. And she has an informal alliance with two nearby Monterey Peninsula tea shops, one Chinese and one specializing in English tea. The three collaborate on “progressive tea tastings,” in which participants move from one store to another to sample the different forms and traditions of tea.
One idea that’s become a customer favorite is “matcha shortbread,” created by a local French bakery. The small round cookies are sold two to a bag and few customers walk out without at least a bag or two.
Special services and reaching new customers
Cha-ya offers customers the ability to pre-order teas; in May, for example, they could pre-order 2-oz Hashiri Shincha for $26, 2-oz Shincha Kupu for $24, and 2-oz Shincha Houryoku for $24. Prices increased by $2–4 after the pre-order period. Gammon also special orders for some customers. “I have a customer who orders 12 packages of Gyokuro at a time,” she says.
Gammon is well aware of the necessity for reaching new customers. A video on the store’s website walks viewers through the shop, explaining its categories and options. Support spots run on the local NPR station, KAZU, which broadcasts to the entire Monterey Bay area, and Gammon set up a Yelp account that now publishes five-star reviews, including this comment from one customer: “Totally turned me on to making matcha the right way in a bowl with a whisk!”
“Every year our tea sales go up, and we find more and more people switching from coffee to tea because of the health benefits,” says Gammon. At some point, 1,000-square feet may not be enough.
Cha-ya Japanese Tea & Things, 118 Webster St., Monterey, CA 93940. (831) 646-5486, www.chaya4tea.com