What do blockbuster film Black Panther, basketball superstar Steph Curry, and Sophie’s Cuppa Tea have in common? One word: Oakland. The other city by the bay has come into its own—Black Panther opens and closes in Oakland, Golden State Warriors great Curry is an international name, and Sophie’s exemplifies the premium tea destinations popping up all over town, catering to a diverse clientele.
There is, however, no actual Sophie. Partners John Brown and Xiaobei Wei, who grabbed up the Montclair neighborhood location after a previous deal in Palo Alto fell through, simply like the name’s welcoming sound. Brown lived in China from 1979-82 as a professor teaching English, American literature and history before returning to the U.S. and launching a successful data-processing business. Wei is a former restaurateur. “My business background is B2B, while hers is definitely hospitality,” Brown says.
From Crimson Needle to Green Javelin
Sophie’s retails exclusively Chinese teas, both by the cup and loose leaf, and is locally famous for its “no milk, no sugar” mantra. Brown and Wei are dedicated to serving each tea in the comprehensive collection (listed on blackboards lining the walls) brewed perfectly, with all subtle flavors intact. Both 12-ounce and 16-ounce sizes are available.
Popular favorites include red tea Crimson Needle ($7.25, 16-ounce cup; $27 an ounce), white tea Silver Needle ($6.25, 16-ounce cup; $28 an ounce), oolong Amber Orchid ($8.25, 16-ounce cup; $28 an ounce) and green tea Green Javelin ($6.75, 16-ounce cup; $26 an ounce). Sophie’s also carries traditional Chinese black teas, including exotic Ascending Aura ($5.25, 16-ounce cup; $150, 12-ounce cake), floral jasmines such as Blizzard ($6.25, 16-ounce cup; $23 an ounce), and yellow teas such as First Steps ($6.75, 16-ounce cup; $25 an ounce).
The partners close Sophie’s every spring for 30 days, visiting China to look for the first pick of green teas, and to make new contacts. Brown notes that as many as 15 to 30 new teas are added each year, based on these new partnerships with Chinese farmers. The shop’s popular one-hour tea tastings are an ideal way for regulars to educate themselves, as Brown talks about new teas, shows photos of source farms, describes processing and best preparation. Really dedicated tea connoisseurs can accompany Brown and Wei on group trips to China, during which they visit both farms and local cultural sites. Next year’s group will visit Yunnan province for almost two weeks.
Yes to Online and Wholesale
Though Brown was initially resistant to online sales, Sophie’s now does a substantial business online through its attractive, easy-to-use site. However, he says, “We don’t advertise it, and our approach to it is very low-key.”
On the wholesale side, Sophie’s currently supplies a few tea shops and event businesses, but Brown is very particular about which ones. “I mostly discourage [potential tea] entrepreneurs who are ‘in love’ as opposed to ‘in business,’” he says.
Fortunately for Brown and Wei, Sophie’s is both a love—and a business.
Sophie’s Advice: Five Smart Ways to Educate Your Customer
- Deflect “sticker shock.”
An $8.25 cup of tea seems extreme to people new to premium teas, Brown says. Be prepared to explain why a rare, carefully sourced and processed tea may cost that much.
- Offer tea tastings regularly.
Cultivate a “tea playground,” as Sophie’s calls it. Let people mingle, chat, and see for themselves the contrasting characteristics of teas as they develop their palates.
- Ensure all customer service employees know the basics of every tea offered.
You may know your teas inside and out. But do your employees? They’re the ones likely to be answering (or not) customers’ sometimes difficult questions.
- Do demos on the best ways to prepare different teas.
Clay pot? Glass pot? What temperature? Optimum steeping time? Remember a new teapot can be an add-on sale for someone who doesn’t own the right one.
- Don’t get too “winery” with flavor descriptions.
John Brown chuckles over pretentious wine descriptions that go on forever. “Stick with two-to-three adjectives to describe a tea’s flavor,” he suggests. Crimson Needle, for example, is described at Sophie’s as evoking “orange blossom and lychee blossom. Slightly sweet.”
Sophie’s Cuppa Tea, 2078 Antioch Ct. Oakland, CA 94611. (510) 500-3404, www.sophiescuppatea.com