Sitting down with Amy, the owner of Jolie Tea Co. was an absolute pleasure. She is an incredibly genuine and sweet person, and leaving the shop after chatting with her for a good hour or two I felt inspired. Below is the interview I had with her which I transcribed from the audio recording I took as we spoke. I also snapped some images of her gorgeous shop for you all to enjoy. If you’re in the area, I strongly recommend a stop into her lovely shop. She can be found at 105 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 or online at www.istheteainyou.com. Enjoy! <3
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your shop. What was the inspiration for opening the shop?
“By schooling I am a biologist. I did work in that field after graduation for a good five years and was at the point where I had to then do a masters or a PHD. I remember coming home to my apartment and looking around…it was full of cookbooks. And so I said you know what? This is what my passion might be…cooking. So I enrolled in school. I left the world of hospitals and clinical labs and went to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts which is in Cambridge MA. That was a full year program where you end up with your professional chef’s degree at the end of it. I loved it, I just knew this was the right thing but I also knew I didn’t have the temperament for a restaurant kitchen. My first job in food business was working for a caterer…I managed the kitchen, did the staffing, did the recipe lists and food ordering which was a good experience. This was a good behind the scenes look and I learned I actually didn’t want to be a caterer. I did think that was going to be my road….still in the food business but I definitely liked the business side of it, the organization and still having that interface with creativity. So I stayed there for a couple of years then I got a job in Boston for a big corporate caterer doing sales for them. It was great, a nice lifestyle to have still being in the food business. I cold called, went door to door, gave these big presentations and again, grew an interface learning the business side of what food can be. I really enjoyed that…I created menus, did menu planning, menu development, production as far as a physical menu as far as what we would take around to clients. It really grew and I was the head of my sales team there. That was great.
Then I got married, decided to have a baby and I stopped working for that employer. After I while I began doing my own consulting…I consulted for people that were trying to get into corporate catering. The corporate market is less intense, less labor intensive around these big set ups and I did that for a little bit. Then I took about five or six years off, my daughter is 12. However, working is in my blood and I wanted to get back to it. I wanted to start something and I’ve always loved tea. I had not been a tea fanatic but I always loved tea and just how it can be simple and elegant it is…there is a broad range of teas and I just could not get tea out of my mind. So I said you know what, I think I’m supposed to have some kind of tea business. We explored wholesale, we initially thought we might import tea directly. I did have a contact in India…we could import, design packaging and sell it. So we went down that route for a little bit but it’s kind of sterile, there’s not a lot of interaction and we kind of got clogged up in the process. Things just weren’t moving.
So while this was happening, a store front opened up in Hamilton which is right next to the town we live in and I said you know what do it, let’s go for it. We had a logo, a name, we had a brand, so we translated that into a store front. So that’s where Jolie Tea Co. started in Hamilton, Mass. We started with sixty jars of loose leaf tea, tea accessories and gifty type items.
We just kind of grew that, we grew into giving tea lessons, tea classes, we acquired some classroom space, we did a lot of outreach to try to bring the community in. We also did a lot of blending, did a lot of researching and started growing the number of teas we carried into what we have now which is over 200. We were able to do a lot of research and development, try new product, we also then started our web site and online ordering and that became a huge platform for it, it allowed us to get out of our storefront to reach farther. That was a whole learning curve as well…we had to create packaging for online sales so for five years, we really just focused on growing the business, staying unique, keeping to the Parisian European theme and becoming experts on tea. We strive for that with our staff. When we were in Hamilton we had a lot of students…college students, they really helped build this business as well, so we were lucky.
However, we just knew there wasn’t going to be enough foot traffic in Hamilton, that really became a pivotal point. I knew it was really important for us to sell the experience of tea and not just loose leaf. Yes, lots of people just want to come in and have you make them tea and enjoy it, they don’t really want to have to do it themselves. However, with the new generation that is much more experiential it felt like we really needed to be able to tap into that desire for experience. So we started looking for locations where we could serve tea and that took a good year, year and a half. Then out of the blue this space landed in our laps and we had one day to make a decision. We just said alright we’re going to go for it and it just seemed like the right place…first day we opened here it felt like home. Salem, the history of Salem, it felt like home. People will seek us out if they’re going to visit Salem and it’s really amazing. With the retail to the cafe setting where we can serve tea, this really works well.”
What made you choose the name?
“Jolie means “beautiful” in French…I love France though I have no French blood in me. Jolie just is this beautiful word and Jolie Tea Company seemed like it really went well together. People come in and they want to know who Jolie is so we had to bring in this [Amy points to sculpture on the top of the tea display, pictured above] who we say is Jolie. Once in awhile someone will come in and her name is Jolie and that’s always exciting. We just all love the name and what it means. It is the word that best expresses aesthetic beauty. We really focus on that for our product.”
What made you choose Salem for the location of your shop?
“The promise of foot traffic is what initially brought us here, such a busy area. Anyone who wants to find us, does. Halloween is just wall to wall people, crazy. Once we got here, we realized how lucky we were. Salem has such a platform for business, The Salem Chamber, Main Street, Creative Salem…all amazing. There is always something going on…we have done several events that really brought so many people here. Just such a platform for biz and support. People here love to support local businesses and the mayor is amazing. She comes in as a customer and has such a vision for the city, her decision making is spot on, all of the time. She has this inner compass that just leads the city. We love love love Salem.”
What has the biggest challenge been for you as a business owner in the witch city? What advice would you give to someone considering opening a shop in Salem?
“The biggest challenge would be October and that just comes down to being stocked and staffed. Make sure you wear good shoes…after October my back is gone! At the same time we were running on adrenaline and everyone is so up and up and happy and loving Salem so you just are up and not tired. We were just a little removed from the Essex street crowd which gets really jammed up, it’s hard on some places down there. So we were fortunate.
Advice I would give…just do it. You won’t regret it. It’s not like Boston where everything is more expensive and the stakes are a lot higher but you’re still in an urban environment where I would say it’s the same clientele. It’s a walking city there are great museums, schools….it’s like a mini Boston. I’ve been so happy here.”
What’s one thing you’d want people to know about your business that may not be inherently obvious?
“We serve coffee too! A wonderful coffee called French Truck coffee from New Orleans. We actually had someone driving by and saw that sign and stopped the car. He came running in saying “Oh my God, you serve French Truck coffee?!?”
It has a bit of a French underground vibe. It is coffee, created in French style with chicory in it so it’s a little lighter and there is a little bit of a bite to it. There is an overall sweetness as well.
Like I said, French Truck is in New Orleans and we decided this is perfect. It’s fun and they’re funky; they ride around in these yellow trucks and it’s really good iced or hot. With the chicory in it, having the extra herb is fun and it kind of melds into what we are doing here with the herbs and teas. So we have been very happy, they’re an awesome company. Really great to work with. That is the one thing people may not now…we embrace all beverages here!”
Is running a business in Salem in October as chaotic as it sounds?
“Chaotic, in a good way. Not negative at all, it really is just keeping up with it. It was adrenaline pumping, really fun for us and then actual Halloween day was almost anti climactic. I think everyone on Halloween day is walking around in costume, checking out other people in costume, not so much coming into the stores…so it was busy but it wasn’t like the rest of the month where it was just crazy. Knock on wood, we’re lucky it was really great, for our first Halloween.”
Do you have any future or upcoming events you’re excited about or want to share?
“In terms of events..monthly we always do a special high tea. For example in April we are doing a springtime in Paris tea and in May will do something with Mother’s Day. Each month we have a theme.
We just came off of a whole month, which was March, dedicated to darjeeling tea and that was really fun. March is when that first plucking happens for the tea plantations, they have a slight dormancy in winter and that first plucking, what they call a flush is when they pick those leaves. Those are really prized teas…first flush and second flush. We really dug into fruit classes and tasting, blending classes, what darjeeling tea is, all the different teas available for darjeeling…March is kind of slower here so we really had time to focus on that and bring in some people who really know how to pour and and that was really fun.
We are always trying to tap into something. February was Salem’s So Sweet we had the queen of hearts tea and sculpture. Last year we had the mad hatter, so that is always really great. We usually do a whole theme around a month. Those are the highlights for us, the high tea is very labor intensive and we have separate foods for those and just do those on Saturdays.”
Do you have a product that is your specialty? Is there something specific you are known for? Do you do anything specific or special during certain times of the year? October or non.
“When I look at the numbers we sell a ton of cups of tea and loose leaf tea. Sometimes I feel like they’re separate populations one is interested in brewing tea and doing it correctly but then for other people we are really their local resource for loose leaf. I feel that sets us apart from other places where you can buy loose leaf or another tea shop. You can come in and have a tea 101. We have educated staff…we will go through and explain, you can smell teas, we will help make recommendations…education is a huge part of business. Our mission is to create tea drinkers. We can do that by brewing tea and creating wonderful teas, we can also do that with the education…people get hooked! It’s a huge world behind the jars that happens from someone plucking the tea in a plantation to then it getting blended to create this beautiful tea that we sell to the customer. So number one we want to find the right tea for the right person. Our tea is about $2.50/oz up to $17.00/oz and that’s really high end but average is three or four dollars. We are really good with saying “this is an everyday tea” or “this is a special occasion tea or something you drink once in awhile”. We will adjust our tea buying…if we get requests for something then we will buy more of that type of tea or that type from several locations, so it’s fun to always be adjusting.”
Amy [continues]: “A few fun facts I wrote down…”
“What I love about tea is the history, cultural diversity, the sensory experience and the wellness component of it. Every day something different is tapping into one of those. My interpretation of tea and staff’s interpretation comes from the French presentation of tea. All places have their own style and their own way. I feel an affiliation to the French presentation because it’s focused on beauty, sensory experience, elegance…it looks beautiful, smells beatiful, the tastes…everything speaks to you. My influences are Mariage Freres out of Paris and Laduree in Paris who is known for their macaroons. These two companies are sort of what inspired this physical space, everything down to the dark wood which is a Mariage Freres trait and the colors used here are Laduree colors so we just sort of took those great inspirations and created this theme.
There is a quote that is kind of integral to what we do here, a Japanese proverb…”If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understand truth and beauty”. We won’t get too heavy here and philosophical but that quote just speaks to me. That deeper meaning of tea…for thousands of years people have been drinking tea and felt something. We did trademark the expression “Is the tea in you?” which comes from this quote.
This again is our interpretation…we are a place for beauty, conversation, discovery, someone’s journey. We try to make this a personal space for our guests so whatever they need, we’re here to give that to them.
A little fun fact is all tea comes from one plant, the camellia sinensis. So all tea which originated in China, most all of it comes from that stock. They eventually did find indigenous tea plans in India so you have the camellia sinensis, Chinese version and the camellia sinensis the Indian version. But everything comes from those plants. That is where the real art comes in because you’re forming the different types, styles, all from this one plant. It’s not like wine where there are certain grapes…this is all one plant. When you get into tea and you think about that…it’s just amazing. Fascinating for us.
Our teas are harvested by hand…it’s not a big tractor going through and harvesting which does happen and makes tea more affordable. Those are great for convenience…they did a lot for the industry. For our teas though you could buy a box or an oz for $2.50 and these do have the human touch, these have that artisan production that makes it premium tea. So there is a subtle difference and that’s what we have chosen to carry and the direction we chose to go.
Tea can be such a helpful product…humans should all drink tea at some level, it’s been around for thousands of years, and yes, we sell it loose but it doesn’t matter if it’s in a bag or whatever but tea just good for you. There are so many health benefits. I just saw an article about how in London a lot of restaurants are creating these high end tea courses for people because it has become more frowned upon to drink alcohol at lunch. So now rather than having water or something sugary, people are having tea and getting into tea presentation. I feel like there is more of an awareness and acceptance of it. Not just for at night when you’re getting ready for bed or sick. I do feel like tea is emerging as a more respected beverage almost like wine is. Its being elevated outside of the afternoon tea or just in the morning so it’s fascinating to see what is the future going to be, for tea.”
Me: “Have you been to France?”
“I have a handful of times. Their presentation is a lot like we do here, the three tiered tray…England does their high tea with three tiered trays as well. I have not been to China or Japan and I do want to go. I’m waiting for my daughter to get a little older before we do that, I think it would be a lot of fun.”
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