Judy Smith is worried about spilling the tea. Not literally, of course. After eight years of owning the Charms of Leffingwell tea room in Ellenton with her husband, she’s an expert in creating the perfect tea time experience.
According to Smith, tea has been around for more than 5,000 years. For those a little fuzzy on their tea history, it helps to start from the ground up.
“Many teas, whether black, green, white or even purple actually come from the same plant,” says Elevation Tea Company owner Jennifer Martinez. Elevation offers many unique teas and tea-based drinks, and Martinez often recommends Colombian black tea and Kenyan green tea to her customers. The shop also sells natural tea sodas and tea-flavored ice creams, as well as more common flavors like chai. Tea newbies can enjoy one of the shop's mixed drinks, like its best-selling purple lemonade, made with Kenyan purple tea and pure Florida lemon juice. “Depending on how the tea is processed, different compounds come out, creating a completely different experience,” Martinez explains.
Geography is also central to that experience. At Elevation, Martinez sources teas directly from Kenya and Colombia, offering tastings and a mini-exhibit to help guests discover the origins of their tea and become mindful of what goes into it.
“Everyone around the world drinks tea differently,” says Smith. The quintessential British tea time is a staple at Charms and The Elixir Tea House in Sarasota. Like Smith, Elixir owner Zsuzsanna Lukács speaks animatedly about the cultural role of tea time.
Poised on a comfy sofa in one of Elixir’s private rooms, Lukács describes the popularity of tea houses in her native Hungary and across Europe. “In Sarasota, there wasn’t a tea house with private rooms where people could enjoy each other’s company,'' she says, so in 2013 she opened Elixir. Today, decor from every corner of the globe fills the shop. Guests can even sample Hungary’s famous cake, the Esterházy-torta, against a wallpaper backdrop of Japanese cherry blossoms, creating a distinct sense of worldliness.
“We’re so global now, and people are learning about new teas from around the world,” says Smith. “We may have different tea customs," she adds, “but it’s all wonderful and it brings people together.”
Glance around any of our local tea shops, and you could very well be staring into oil paintings of tea time scenes, filled with fascinating characters. At Elixir, ladies in hats and gloves enjoy high tea while groups of teens meet regularly to play Dungeons & Dragons.
“When people first sit down, everyone is on their phone, but then they start to talk to each other,” says Lukács. She rattles off the community events Elixir hosts, like open mic night, poetry night, and even a visit from Santa Claus during the holidays. “We’re working on starting a painting night,” she adds. In a way, she’s a matchmaker, eager to spark connections among her guests.
At Charms, Smith encourages the same. “Since we’re in a central location, many people from as far as Ft. Myers and Tampa meet here,” she says. Smith strives to make the tea room comfortable for all guests, recounting the story of a mom and her young son visiting the tea room. “Her son practiced jujitsu, and upon seeing the green tea, he excitedly explained that the drink is popular with jujitsu masters,” she says.
Having extensively studied tea culture, Smith understands the unifying power of the tea house. “In the past,” she says, “women couldn’t go to pubs, so they met in the tea houses, which became an important part of the suffrage movement.”
Today, tea houses proudly continue this tradition of inclusivity. At Elevation, guests enjoy a judgment-free environment focused on spreading positivity. Martinez even partnered with Sarasota artist Brandon Thrift to visually capture the shop’s spirit. Come December, Thrift’s ubiquitous “love” illustration will adorn the shop’s cups. “I really hope that tourists will take photos with the cups and spread the message of positivity,” says Martinez.
Elevation regular Molly Valtz, a 25-year-old publicist, describes the shop as happy and energizing. “I love the tea ladies at Elevation; they really do bond with customers, and their personalities match the shop’s vibe,” she says. Molly stops by Elevation a few times a week, enjoying a refreshing cup of purple lemonade, which she recommends to new and seasoned tea drinkers.
“Elevation is chill and upbeat, and going there is a nice work week treat,” she says.
At first, tea time being both chill and upbeat seems paradoxical. “We’re influenced by Eastern tea ceremonies from China and Japan as well as British tea time,” says Lukács’s husband Gyula. “The Eastern tradition focuses on meditation and connecting with yourself,” he points out, “while the British style represents connecting with others.”
The two traditions blend perfectly at Charms, where guests often come to read and enjoy tea and a scone in the peaceful Victorian tea room. “We live in stressful times,” she continues, “and it’s good to have something calming that takes you away for a bit.”
Back in the warm glow of Elixir’s fireplace, guests feel transported to another world. “Even if you’re by yourself,” says Lukács, “you can come here, see other people, and not feel alone.” Her enthusiasm bodes well for the future of tea houses. Due to people’s increased curiosity regarding tea, Lukács, Martinez, and Smith all believe that tea culture will continue to grow in the United States, especially in sunny Sarasota. At Charms, most people drink hot tea, while at Elevation, iced tea is the most popular variety. Elixir, which also serves boba tea, sees about half of guests ordering hot tea and half ordering iced.
Although Smith works full time and only runs Charms on the weekends, she and her daughter still carve out time to visit other tea shops in the area.
“Covid disrupted the practice, but new shops are opening as more people discover the pleasures of tea,” she says. Looks like someone spilled the tea on tea time long ago.
Charms of Leffingwell is located at 905 Leffingwell Ave., Ellenton, and reservations are required. Elevation Tea Company is located at 1383 Mc Ansh Square, Sarasota and The Elixir Tea House is located at 1926 Hillview St., Sarasota.