A dissatisfied customer once stared Infini-tea owner Lorrie Ferguson, defiantly in the face and then ripped up a gift certificate to the teashop. As the scraps dropped on the counter, she walked out.
You definitely need thick skin to own a small business, explains Ferguson who has operated the Antioch, Ill. teashop, since 2004. “You just take it with a grain of salt and as a cost of doing business,” Ferguson says.
Bad experiences aside, it’s the good ones that keep her coming back every day with a smile on her face. One day a few years back, she decided she’d had enough and she wanted to close for good. But then the mail came—with a letter and photo from a long-time customer who was deployed in Iraq.
“There was a picture of him surrounded by all his Infini-tea stuff,” she says, “and a letter saying, ‘I can hear the bombs and artillery in the background, but I’m sitting here sipping my cup of tea, remembering the wonderful times I had at Infini-tea with my wife. Thank you for being there, and I can’t wait to come home and bring my wife in again.’
Since then, the teashop has continued to flourish. Weekdays bring in 20 to 30 customers per day, with 50 to 60 per day visiting on weekends, all at an average of $16 a ticket for food and tea. Customers can get a 2-cup pot of tea for $3.50, a 6-cup pot for $6.50, or go for the Royal Treatment (a standard high tea with four courses of food and drinks) at $22.50 including tax and gratuity. All this is handled by a small staff, but one that understands the entire shop and cares for one another like family. The employees want to be there, and that means a lot to Ferguson.
The food is something special as well. Ferguson’s husband, Kenelm, is the master scone maker. He uses a historical recipe brought over by his ancestors on the Mayflower. And that’s not the only bright spot on the menu — Infini-Tea offers soups, salads, breakfast, sandwiches, hot entrees, and desserts with tea as an ingredient. The Shepherd’s Pie gravy is made with Lapsang Souchong and the Chicken Pot Pie has a Pai Mu Tan white tea sauce. Meals like these are bringing men coming into the shop, she said. Once they hear about cooking with tea, they’re hooked, said Ferguson.
Ferguson stocks 60 to 70 teas. The top-seller is Prairie Passion, a fruity, sweet, aromatic green and black blend with a little stoutness. The teas rotate with the season. In summer, the house-made Berry Blend iced-tea (raspberry, cranberry, blackberry, and strawberry) is the chart-topper.
But tea’s popularity comes with a price. Now that tea has become more popular among customers of all shapes and sizes— the big dogs want a hand in the game, she said. Ferguson believes that one of the biggest issues facing teashops is the commoditization of the product. She says it’s nice that Starbucks bought out Teavana, but it’s going to have the same effect on tea that Starbucks had on coffee.
“[Tea is] going to become commoditized,” she says. “It’s going to take away its uniqueness, its celebration, and the nuances of what it’s all about. It’s about taking the time to enjoy that cup of tea. You don’t have that with coffee—you drink coffee to get your buzz.”
How does a shop owner combat commoditization? Ferguson suggests keeping the store unique.
“Keep it special to the point where people want to know more,” she says. “We want them to experience more than Lipton or Celestial Seasonings. We want them to understand there’s a whole world out there that they haven’t even scratched the surface of.”
Gaining customer interest with consistent, quality products—in addition to truly becoming a part of the community—are what Ferguson says keeps her customers coming back. And she has a long list of repeat customers to prove it.
“You’re not just a store,” she says. “You become a part of that community. You become a part of why people live in that area. It’s not just to make a buck. We never grew that big, but that’s okay. It’s a nice little place.”
902 Main Street, Antioch, Illinois
Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday