by Madelyne Zollo | May 27, 2016
Made In FLA: Boutique Tea Shop in Tampa
The European-style café that started a tea-volution
Walk into any of Abigail StClair’s three cafés and a mélange of jasmine, lavender, blueberries and pomegranate perfumes the air with an otherworldly fragrance released in tiny plumes each time a tea tin opens for an order.
Rows of silver canisters imported from all over the globe glimmer from the counter at the front of TeBella Tea Company. A black chalkboard advertises the day’s creation (a summer favorite is the Blackberry Jasmine Lemonade). And handpicked local snacks, like William Dean chocolates from Largo, macarons by Kim Yelvington of Bern’s Steak House, and doughnuts from The Hole Donuts in St. Petersburg, pair perfectly with the international flavors raising pinkies across the Tampa Bay area.
From the moment StClair poured her first cup at TeBella’s flagship on Davis Islands she wanted to set it apart from other cafés. The first way to stand out from the pack: an unparalleled collection of more than a hundred hand-harvested, loose-leaf teas. Every drink on the menu is hand-steeped, so whether it’s a simple mug or an iced matcha, it’s made exactly to the customer’s liking. TeBella’s menu has a well-balanced variety of fruity, sweet, citrus, spicy and traditional teas and includes unique blends like Earl Grey lavender, Florida orange blossom, and Key lime ginger—some are created and mixed in-house by StClair. All the offerings can be served hot, iced or made into a “fog” (brewed with half hot water and half steamed milk).
“We want to serve the world’s finest tea, and that’s what makes us different,” says StClair. “We work really hard to get a wide variety of the best of the best. Even with a hundred teas, we have customers coming in asking for something new weekly.” With locations on Davis Islands and in Oxford Exchange and St. Petersburg’s Station House, TeBella serves cups of beauty, depth and complexity. StClair built such an extensive tea library by not only tasting every tea she’s come across, but also by traveling the world. She’s gone to Darjeeling, India, to learn about harvesting and processing leaves from a garden master and to Kagoshima and Shizuoka, two of the main tea growing regions in Japan, to unearth a source for several of her teas (Kukicha, Gyokuro and Sencha). After these trips, StClair brings teas back to the United States that have never been exported before.
Clearly, her vision works, as she just celebrated her business’ five-year anniversary last December. Even though StClair says she feels like a Floridian—and vows to never live anywhere else again—she grew up in Virginia, went to college in Massachusetts, and planted herself in Wyoming. After a while, she longed for the East Coast, and visited her dad, who’d relocated to Tampa Bay. She loved how the area felt like a small town with big city amenities, and so she moved there in 2008. Reconnecting with family in Florida stirred the idea of opening a tea shop. The drink had been a favorite treat and ritual of hers as a child.
“There was something about the ceremonial aspect of tea that drew me in. The process of preparing a pot of tea, then taking a moment out of my day to enjoy the quiet repose of it,” recalls StClair. “When I came up with the idea for TeBella, my family and friends thought I was crazy, but they also told me that I should absolutely go for it.”
According to StClair, many people don’t realize that tea is quite similar to wine and beer in terms of its vast number of variations and brewing styles, so TeBella has turned into a place to learn while you sip.
StClair shares her love of the earthy beverage by hosting tea workshops and tastings. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers? A tea-infused cocktail-making class, which teaches three to four different recipes, such as champagne punches and bourbon drinks.
Besides showing customers an innovative way to use tea, the café also created a caffeinated buzz among local mixologists. Now many of TeBella’s teas pop up on cocktail menus at local bars and lounges. One bartender won a national cocktail competition with “the Aroma Coma,”using TeBella’s Jasmine Pearl blend.
While her handcrafted drinks and unique approach to tea have steeped TeBella deep in success, StClair says she couldn’t have done it without the support of the surrounding community.
“Tampa has an emphasis on local businesses,” says StClair. “I feel very lucky about how gracious and kind everyone has been from the get-go, so
I try to return the favor.”
Her desire to help has made giving back a top priority for the company—from little details like serving Florida-made honey at all TeBella locations to bigger gestures like backing local charities, such as the Children’s Cancer Center in Tampa. StClair also connects with the community by serving as an entrepreneurship mentor and guest lecturer at the University of Tampa and at the University of South Florida.
“When I was starting out, I worked open to close and I didn’t take a significant paycheck for almost two years,” she says. “Students want to hear firsthand from someone who has successfully started a business, not just read a case study in a book. It gives them the mentality of ‘If she can do it, so can I.’”
TEBELLA ON DAVIS ISLANDS
227 East Davis Blvd.
Mon-SAT: 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sun: 12-6 p.m.
TEBELLA AT THE OXFORD EXCHANGE
420 West Kennedy Blvd.
Mon-SAT: 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Sun: 9:30-5 p.m.
TEBELLA AT STATION HOUSE
260 1st Ave S.
Mon-Sun: 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.