For this installment of the “Great Minds Think a Lot” series, we sat down with Lisa McDonald, internationally trained tea sommelier and owner of Ann Arbor businesses, TeaHaus and Eat More Tea. We discussed her upbringing, parenting while being a business owner, her unplugging policies, and forthcoming ventures for both businesses.
TeaHaus, located in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown, is one of the city’s premier tea specialty shops, having over 175 teas in their collection. Its sister company, Eat More Tea, offers related items such as tea-based culinary spice blends, French macarons, and multi-course meals. Check out this interview between Destination Ann Arbor team member Antonio and tea sommelier, Lisa. Below are the highlights of our 30-minute conversation.
Destination Ann Arbor: To give a proper introduction, this is Miss Lisa McDonald of TeaHaus and Eat More Tea. First of all, how's it going?
Lisa: Wonderfully. Thank you very much.
Destination Ann Arbor: How did you get into the tea business? What inspired you?
Lisa: It wasn’t necessarily an inspiration, as much as just a job. I lived overseas for about 15 years. I was a business consultant in France, Germany, and Sweden. Germany is the largest tea-purchasing country, and the only country that does testing on their tea for pesticides and heavy metals as standard practice. In helping them design their training program, I went through the training myself. I am one of a few European-trained tea sommeliers in the US. There's probably less than ten at this point. I had my first child and decided to head back to the States. It ended up being Ann Arbor. Once I got here, I decided I didn't want to go into consulting. Traveling from state to state is even further than traveling from country to country in Europe. And I wanted to have more time with my kid. So I contacted the German connections that I had, and I opened TeaHaus the same week I had my second child back in December of 2007.
Destination Ann Arbor: Wow that's pretty amazing. Let's talk about the differences between TeaHaus and Eat More Tea. They both serve similar purposes, but not really.
Lisa: Absolutely. TeaHaus opened in 2007, and when I first opened, we just had loose tea. About three years after that, I had the opportunity to break into the wall where the former Cake Nouveau location was. Then I opened a kitchen, and we had a restaurant cafe. I wanted a separate branding so that a tea store could carry spice blends without feeling like they were carrying a competing brand's item. So, I separated Eat More Tea from TeaHaus to the extent that I could market Eat More Tea to other tea stores, and again, not being a competing brand for them. But with COVID, it just didn't make sense to staff two locations, and also because it was a gelato store (which is) seasonal. We redesigned the front of Eat More Tea to be our event space.
Destination Ann Arbor: As a tea sommelier, how do you provide the best product possible at TeaHaus?
Lisa: Testing is very important to me. I get my tea tested in Germany for pesticides, heavy metals, that type of thing. I did consulting work in Japan for some of the small tea gardens. So that cross-promotion is there. Having the teas tested in Germany, I can at least ensure the quality of the product. Also, I've written a book about tea, and I think that just being one of the people people come to in the US for information keeps me on my toes. Being one of the few certified experts in America solidifies my spot as someone who knows what she's talking about.
Destination Ann Arbor: One thing I immediately noticed when I walked in, outside of the no internet policy, was how your space makes people feel when they enter. It's kind of a unique ambiance. Was that purposeful by design?
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. Opening a store with a two-year-old son and a three-day-old son, I wanted TeaHaus to be just an extension of my home. I wanted to make sure that TeaHaus was a community. It was important to make sure that the community that surrounds TeaHaus, whether that be through my employees, our community involvement with our free meal program, or a place that families felt comfortable, can bring their kids. We are selling some of the best tea in the entire world, but I didn't want to come off as snooty. I wanted to be very accessible. I wanted it to be a place where people could feel comfortable while having a high-end product.
Destination Ann Arbor: How do you feel your space has helped contribute to the culture of the Ann Arbor area?
Lisa: We are pretty open minded. We've had, for example, transgender meetup nights on a regular basis. We have different community organizations. Whenever the store is closed, if employees want to have meetings of certain types, tea tastings, the transgender meetup, youth for peace, and all these different groups. As long as I trust them, they can have a key. They can use the space. That was really important to me, my space wasn't just for my business, it was for our community.
Having lived in Germany for many years, I was on the original committee that started Kindlefest. Little things like that. Again, anything that would make this part of town, where I would want to hang out with my kids, was worth me doing. And not just my kids, but just people.
Destination Ann Arbor: What about the city that makes you want to live and build here? In your opinion, what makes this town special? The Ann Arbor area in general.
Lisa: I liked the field. I liked being close to the farmer's market. In the home that I lived in, in Germany, my apartment was like 150 years older than our country. I just liked the old feeling of the city. I like the brick. Ann Arbor has the oldest farmers market in the entire country. Things like that drew me to this area, not just to Ann Arbor in general, but just this area.
Destination Ann Arbor: In terms of the community, what are some of your favorite places to visit if you're hanging around?
Lisa: When my kids were younger, the Hands-On museum (was) directly across the street, and that was an obvious choice for me. I like walking around downtown, especially having lived in downtown European cities. I like the concept of being able to go and get a cup of coffee or go home and grab something to eat. I like that it's walkable. I like hanging out downtown. My kids would take the public bus down from their school. Just at a very early age, have liked hanging out downtown.
Destination Ann Arbor: As an expert on all things tea. What are some of your go-to teas and snacks?
Lisa: I would say having a favorite tea is like having a favorite child; we say we don’t. (laughs) No, I’m just joking. I only have two, and they’re both great. There are probably three to five teas that I drink most often. One is milky jade oolong tea, and the other is Hōjicha, which is from our sister state in Japan. I tend to drink more classic teas. Except in the winter, sometimes having a little decaf caramel tea is nice, soothing, and desserty. But I'm not going to lie; I have a cup of the C word in the morning. I do drink coffee. I'm an equal-opportunity beverage consumer.
Destination Ann Arbor: What's the best way for people to find more about TeaHaus and Eat More Tea?
Lisa: That's a good question because I am absolutely horrible at social media. I have a wonderful staff. In the end, I'm the one who wears all the hats. The best thing to do would be to sign up for our newsletter.
Stay tuned as we bring you more Ann Arbor area business leaders and community members making a difference within the county.
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