Townshend’s Tea: A True Tea Party

Named after the author of the Townshend Acts of 1767, which helped to incite the original tea party in Boston Bay, Townshend’s Tea House, in the Alberta Arts district of Portland, Ore., revels in the once-underdog status of tea. The shop, a paean to the once-disrespected beverage, bustles with the lively foot traffic flowing in from a busy commercial district.

townshendsThe 1,500-square-foot space houses well-kept couches and inviting easy chairs, which are thoughtfully arranged on the top floor and throughout a well-lit refinished basement. Free Wi-Fi keeps lap-topped customers occupied while they sip from a selection of more than 100 loose-leaf teas. A library, it is not, says owner Matt Thomas, who sees his teahouses as a community gathering spot, where he strives for a welcoming atmosphere.

The renovation of the basement to provide additional seating was motivated by Thomas’s mission to create a space where people can meet and linger. “We don’t want to flip tables,” he says. Townshend’s isn’t a place to rush or be rushed. A small sign near the cash register reminds customers that “Tea Takes Time.” Afternoon hours from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. attract the bulk of the day’s customers, which include a broad cross-section of students from nearby universities, professionals, moms, and shoppers who frequent the vibrant business strip along Alberta Street. “It’s a good value for students who can pack away a whole afternoon of study time for the price of a $3-$5 drink tab,” says Thomas.

townshendsA modest selection of baked goods, from area vendors, complements the tea offerings. Tea, however, maintains the starring role with Earl Grey, Yunnans, and Vanilla Rooibos, topping the most favored list. Herbal blends such as their Lavender Sunset studded with lavender and rose flowers, wild blackberry, strawberry and raspberry leaves, orange peels, sunflower blossoms and salvia edge out the single note herbal teas, and their signature chai blends have customers clamoring for more. Thomas also offers an apothecary line that deftly combines herbs and teas known for their healing properties.

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Thomas looked to the mountains of Central Oregon to open Townshend’s sister shop –Townshend’s Bend Teahouse. His second shop opened in 2008. Here, in the mountain resort town of Bend, Thomas has taken his successful neighborhood teahouse business model and replicated it for the busy tourist town. The two shops parallel each other in sales, size, foot traffic and atmosphere. Both teahouses pull in $175,000 in annual average sales and average tickets come in at $5.50.

The Bend shop’s main difference is in clientele. In Bend employees welcome an influx of high school students in the afternoons – the result, Thomas says, of restless small town kids looking for a place to land after the school bell rings.

Equipment at Townshend’s teahouses is elemental. Thomas keeps the tea brewing simple with minimal equipment. “We brew in stainless steel and serve in glass – that’s about as technical as it gets,” he says.

This simple approach has worked for Thomas since starting his shop in 2006. His latest expansion is a coup for any small local businessperson. After successfully peddling his teas to the local Whole Foods stores for months, he was recently rewarded with the coveted tea bar location tucked inside a close-in neighborhood store. Here, he will serve freshly brewed tea and sell loose-leaf tea in bulk. In addition to a robust online presence, his wholesale operation continues to grow, and he hopes to increase his 20+ client list of coffeehouse and restaurant accounts in the coming years.

Underdog or victor? At Townshend’s, tea is ruling the kingdom.