One Magazine Article

Tea Time
The Tea Smith gives tea totalers their own place to go in west Omaha.

At the 40-plus coffee shops in metro Omaha, tea drinkers are usually an afterthought, given a smidgen of counter space to select from a handful of bagged teas. Aside from Lady Caroline’s British Tea Shops in Dundee, the true Omaha tea connoisseur, often just as passionate as a wine aficionado, must rely on mail-order catalogues, travels to more tea-friendly locales, and the kindness of like-minded friends to obtain high-quality loose-leaf tea to satiate their tea-loving taste buds.

Looking to serve tea-lovers such as him, and bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, Tim Smith opened “The Tea Smith,” a west Omaha tea shop that offers more than 70 teas—as well as cups, pots, kettles and infusers—from the world’s finest tea-growing regions.

“I looked around Omaha and saw no one was offering really high-quality tea,” Tim said. “So we thought we’d bring it here.”

Tim and his wife, Paulette, and their son, Brian—the shop’s marketing “teavangelist”—knew the shop would be a winner based on their customers’ surprisingly strong reactions soon after The Tea Smith’s doors opened in December 2004.

“I’ve had a number of people walk in and say, ‘I’ve always wanted (a shop) like this!’” Tim said. “One customer said, ‘I have been waiting 53 years in Omaha for something like this.’”

You can count Omahan Julie Stamps among the shop’s loyalists. She said she would drive by the shop, located in The Shops of Legacy shopping center at 168th Street and West Center Road, while it was under construction, just waiting for it to open. Stamps said she visits The Tea Smith three to five times a week and takes home various tea varieties to brew at home.

Stamps said she and her friends have purchased teas by mail order, but finds the quality to be hit-and-miss.

“I like to joke that I was a ‘bagger,’ because I could not find good loose-leaf teas in Omaha,” she said.

The ready availability of bagged tea and the scarcity of loose-leaf tea in Omaha helps drive tea-lovers to The Tea Smith, Tim said. In other words, loose-leaf tea is the good stuff.

Tea and wine cultivation have a lot in common, Tim said. Just like wine grapes, a wide variety of teas can be made from the same vintage, depending upon growing conditions and processing, and some years’ vintages are better than others.

Bagged tea is mixed from different varieties, so it produces a more consistent flavor, but it doesn’t have the quality flavor of loose-leaf teas. Leaves in bagged teas are chopped finely, allowing a compound called tannin to be released more quickly into the hot water, often producing the bitter, metallic taste that turns off novice tea-drinkers. The larger, loose leaves release tannins more slowly, producing a better-tasting tea.

“When you get into it, it can be as complex as wine,” Brian said. “There are hundreds of flavors and ranges of tastes. But you can enjoy it without any knowledge of it.”

“It’s a premium taste, but at a better price than (premium) coffees,” he said.

Interest and consumption of tea is growing nationally, Tim said, because of the range of taste experiences as well as the growing evidence of tea’s health benefits, which include better cardio-vascular health, tea’s antioxidants, an even the delay or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Brian said The Tea Smith’s contemporary atmosphere—conceived after studying tea shop operations on both coasts and in Canada—caters to both experienced connoisseurs and curious novices.

Many tea shops, Brian said, have a British or Asian theme, but the Smiths chose a contemporary, coffeehouse-style theme that would be more inviting to more customers.

Part of creating this inviting atmosphere is spending a lot of time with each customer, making their tea-drinking experience fun and educational, Tim said.

The Smiths ask customers about their taste preferences, whether they prefer caffeine or decaf, and when they plan to drink their teas.

“There are teas that go well with meals; teas you can drink all day long; teas that are stronger that you drink in the morning and lighter teas that you drink in the evening,” Tim said.

Eventually, monthly tea-tasting events will be scheduled, as well as special events, such as when the 231st anniversary of the Boston Tea Party was commemorated in December at the shop, complete with servers in Colonial costumes.

So what do the Smiths say to convert the patrons of Omaha’s coffeehouses?

“We tell (coffee drinkers) there a number of teas out there for them to try,” Tim said. “Some people like caffeine and want their coffee in the mornings, but they don’t want to drink it in the evening, so it’s just another drink they can enjoy.”

Perhaps it’s not that tough of a sales pitch.

“Coffeehouse employees are some of our strongest repeat customers,” Brian said.