Tea lovers, rejoice: TeBella Tea Company, a Tampa-based mini-chain with a cult following, is coming to Sarasota on April 4. As of Monday, TeBella owner Abigail StClair has inked a deal to take over the former Teavana space at the Mall at University Town Center. (Starbucks, which owns Teavana, plans to close all of the chain's 379 stores.)
StClair opened the first TeBella location on Davis Island in 2010. "That was when high-end tea was on the cusp of really emerging," she says. "The community was super into it and glad there was a local competitor to Teavana. Everyone was rooting for us."
The success of her flagship location led to the opening of an outlet at Tampa's popular Oxford Exchange in 2012. "That came about as the result of a relationship with a customer, [Blake Casper]," StClair explains. "He'd been coming into the shop almost every day before I realized who he was and that he had a plan to develop the Oxford Exchange."
The Oxford Exchange location, she says, was instrumental in catapulting her brand into the South Tampa market. The tea is not only available for purchase in TeBella's dedicated stall, but also served in the venue's popular restaurant. "The Oxford Exchange introduced us to so many people, and helped us become a part of the mainstream community there," StClair says.
TeBella's third location, in downtown St. Petersburg's picturesque Station House co-work space, opened in 2015 and just celebrated its second birthday; the Sarasota location is the company's fourth and the first in our region.
"We've had our eye on Sarasota for quite some time now and have been waiting for the right opportunity," StClair says. "We love Sarasota and we're excited about bringing a successful tea company into the area and giving the tea-drinking community something to look forward to."
StClair herself is a life-long tea lover. "I love the ritual," she says. "I'm not the type of person who really relaxes—I'm very Type A. So I learned to enjoy a pot of tea as a way to stop and take a break for a moment. As I got older, I developed a taste for really fine teas, and it became such a passion that I thought, 'You know what, I want to focus my energy on this every day.' I got a lot of support and encouragement from my family, who I think also thought I was nuts."
With a laugh, she continues, "We opened when my son was 3 months old. I was the person who did everything in the beginning—I manned the shop, planned the business, developed drink recipes and did all the ordering and purchasing. I actually credit that time to my son being so outgoing now. I'd bring him with me to the shop, and when I'd get busy I'd give him to customers to hold!"
These days, StClair isn't doing it all herself. TeBella is now a 20-person business, but it still takes its tea seriously. StClair buys her tea directly from tea gardens in places like India, China, Japan and Sri Lanka, and she travels to those places, too. "I spent most of last summer in China and Sri Lanka, and I got to India, too," she says. "The tea trade there is based in Kolkata, so I hit up a bunch of the merchants and got to sample crops that had been harvested the day before."
After she chooses the teas that she wants to serve at TeBella, StClair and her team do most of their blending in-house, adding ingredients like herbs and essential oils to create custom flavors and drinks like rose matcha lemonade, lavender fogs and flavored tea lattes. StClair says customers' favorite tea blends include white coconut dolce, pomegranate green and Earl Grey lavender, which also holds a special place in her heart: "It's the first tea I ever blended for the company."
And she's looking forward to bringing all of that to Sarasota. "We've built our brand on being inclusive; we want everyone to feel comfortable, especially if they're new to tea," she says. "We get a lot of first-time tea drinkers and we're excited to share our passion. We want to create a whole new community of tea drinkers."
TeBella Tea Company will be located at 140 University Town Center Drive, #124, Sarasota. For more information, email [email protected] or call (813) 254-1212.