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Meditation & Tea: Words of Wisdom from Samovar’s Paul T.

Wise Guy, Paul T.
Wise Guy, Paul T.

Sure, some folks may have what constitutes as a religious commitment to that morning cup, but those snaky lines, noisy steam and the jolting nature of caffeine in coffee can make mindfulness a pretty tall order. Good ol’ coffee and conversation considered, we’ve come to associate the dark pick-me-up more with passion and productivity then we do with self-contemplation.

Tea, on the other hand, brimming with grace and femininity, was ennobled centuries ago into a religion of aestheticism – Teasim, if you will. According to Kakuro Okakura’s Book of Tea, “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony…worship of the  imperfect…and is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in the impossible thing we know as life.” Today, tea is hot, and its popularity symbolizes the shift in America’s values toward living a less stressed, more tranquil lifestyle.

The inspiration behind all these thoughts of coffee, tea and duality was my pursuit of the tranquil new American dream at a Buddhist meditation retreat over New Years. Steering the silent ride to the land inside of our minds was Shinzen Young, a western teacher of eastern Vipassana or Insight meditation. There, a student of Shinzen’s who was also an avid tea practitioner provided an opportunity for us to take part in the Cha-no-yu ritual (literally “hot water for tea”).

Transforming the lobby of the aged, Catholic retreat center into a tasteful teahouse, she demonstrated her agility with powdered green tea, known as Matcha, meticulously preparing servings to a small group of us in the tranquil setting. We were taught that the study and mastery of the tea ceremony takes many years, often lasting one’s lifetime. Just participating as a guest in the semi-formal Cha-no-yu required me to study and learn general tearoom deportment, prescribed gestures and phrases and the proper way one takes teas and sweets.

Given my affiliation with Samovar, I got to thinking… thinking… and thinking a bit more (a phenomena I now understand consists of body sensations, self-talk, and visual images emanating from my mind).  Why, I wondered, is it that one doesn’t cross paths with more black-robed, Buddhist devotees sipping Soy lattes? Why the stronger link between enlightenment and coffee’s cuz, this slightly bitter beverage served hot? Scratching around a bit, I discovered that tea, like coffee, had been bound up through the ages with popular cultural values. The tea social experience, however, was more closely tied to ritual, often occupying the center of certain ceremonial practices.  Established rites like the Japanese Tea Ceremony I experienced, strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, sought to divide the world between the sacred and the profane (or everyday) in the effort to establish community or create a social experience.

The Simple Pleasure of Pouring Tea
The Simple Pleasure of Pouring Tea

Those fortunate enough to have taken a seat at one of Jesse’s Tea Tastings have sensed a similar energy of reverence and nobility. To the unenlightened eye, it may appear to be a creative marketing medium that helps move product. But look a little closer… and you just might catch a glimpse of Samovar’s skillful tea shaman upholding a living legacy of relaxation, pleasure, dignity, and delight.

Which brings it around full circle for me. Shinzen explained that we’d all soon be faced with “aftershock” and “afterglow,” his terms for the positive and negative feeling states experienced during turbulent, post-retreat reentry into a clattering modern world.  He encouraged us to work at meditating daily, while seeking out places and people that supported our practice. Okakura’s charge to “know the stillness that makes the impossible possible,” echoed in his words. I can’t help but thinking… thinking… thinking…   how Jesse’s efforts have made Samovar one of hose magical places that assists patrons and pilgrims in finding the harmony, the serenity and the sacred underlying our everyday world.

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The Samovar Tea Lounge Growth Plan: One Slow Sip at a Time

The First Samovar in the Castro-Mission
The First Samovar in the Castro-Mission

Thanks to amazing support from our customers, vendors, and employees, Samovar Tea Lounge has grown from a little tea spot in the Castro, to becoming a huge presence in the tea industry, with our new location in Yerba Buena Gardens, a great online store, plans for regional rollouts, and phenomenal national, and international press. From the Dutch foodie community surrounding Bouillon Magazine, to the Chicago Tribune, to the Japanese tourist industry featuring us in Figaro Magazine, the world has received us with a warm embrace. Thank you.

Because of this strong public reception, we are constantly asked “Are you going to grow? Are you planning on becoming the Starbucks of tea?” I actually saw a recent reference in an online blog that suggested we are in fact owned by Starbucks, and that Starbucks is testing out the tea market by going undercover in “stealth mode” as Samovar Tea Lounge!

I was amazed, surprised, and slightly alarmed, and, felt it was very important to respond.

First, to set the record very straight: Samovar Tea Lounge is NOT owned by Starbucks. It is owned by Paul, Robert and Jesse, and a few of their friends. That’s it.

Coming out of the hyper-speed, consumer-frenzied, coffee-fueled dot com bomb era, we three wanted to do something that made a difference to us, to our community, and to the world. A tea lounge was that special something that we conjured up that would serve these needs. And it has made a difference!

498 Sanchez Street was a love of labor. We three built it with our hands, and we were the first staff: cook, dishwasher, and tea-maker. There’s been lots of changes in how we do things and in what we offer. But the core, to deliver the ultimate tea experience to make the world a better place, has remained the same. And fortunately for everybody, we now have an amazing staff that is much better than us three at making and serving tea!

Samovar II: The Oasis in Yerba Buena Gardens
Samovar II: The Oasis in Yerba Buena Gardens

Now about growth…
The mission of Samovar is to make the world better place by delivering the ultimate tea experience. And, we’re only effective if as many people as possible experience what we offer. If it were possible to accomplish our mission by maintaining our single original location at 18th and Sanchez, then, that is what we would do–have just that single store. However, the tea lounge business is a very physical, visceral experience, and we accomplish our mission by spreading this experience as far and wide as possible. So, to accomplish the goal, we’ve got to spread it far and wide and and as deep as we can through additional locations.

How do we do that?
That’s the business part. For us to grow as “far, wide, and deep” it takes money. Money is the lifeblood of business, and there are three ways for us to get money to grow:

1. Wait until our two locations yield enough money to allow for more locations.
Pro: We own the company, and this is a super slow, natural, organic growth.
Con: This is really, really, really….(maybe even too) slow. We are in a tight margin business, so to expect our margins to fund our growth would take a really long time. So long in fact that we might miss out on the momentum we’ve created thus far.

2. Get loans to grow.
Pro: We own the company, and get necessary money to grow it.
Con: Repaying loans takes away from the money we use to run the business. Paying interest on loans isn’t good. And, getting loans is a very lengthy process that generally doesn’t fully fund our needs anyway. Also, you have to put your first born children on the line in addition to everything else you own.

3. Get investors.
Pro: People aligned with our vision, our mission, and whom we get along well with invest money in Samovar because they want to be part of something good, exciting, and to contribute to what we’re doing. And they want to know they are contributing directly to making the world a better place through our expansion. And of course they want a return on their investment.
Con: Investors own part of the company. How much depends on the investors.

That’s it. Those are the ways we can spread the gospel of tea and accomplish our mission. It is my belief that there are a lot of people out there who want to make a difference. And, it just so turns out that by joining us, they will make a difference, because we’re making a difference.

The constant question then is “how fast do we grow?” I can openly state in response to the “Starbucks thing” that we will never be the Starbucks of tea. Starbucks is all about churning people through a line as quickly as possible (to ensure hitting estimates and projections for the stock market’s expectations) at counter service delivering highly addictive milk and sugar loaded caffeine beverages. That is the modern commodity of coffee shop business: churn the customers through asap, get their money, send them on their way, and welcome them back for the 4pm slump.

Tea is the antithesis to all of that. Tea is about SLOWING DOWN, spending time with friends and family, taking time for yourself, and drinking something universally healthy that has survived the millennia, and touches nearly all the world’s cultures. Samovar Tea Lounge is about the tea experience. Therefore, it would be to our immediate demise if we were even to attempt becoming the “Starbucks of tea.” Personally, that’s an oxymoron that I don’t think is possible.

Jesse, Samovar's Inspired Leader
Jesse, Samovar's Inspired Leader

As a growth plan, our intention is:
1. Grow as fast and big as is reasonable
2. Embrace slow money. It takes time to grow with solid deep roots. We succeed as we maintain our community involvement, and success as a local business. There’s no IPO planned in 90 days. We’re not on the “for sale” auction. All the investors involved are here for the long haul because they understand developing something of quality and depth takes…time. Slow money fans can apply here and now.
3. Listen. Number 1, and 2 above may seem contradictory, but, if we listen well to our community of customers, employees and vendors, the best pace of growth will become self evident.

There’s no question that people need, desperately, what we offer. And with that, I see an unlimited market potential for our offering: an escape, based on community, health, and a splash of the exotic–but all totally approachable. And, partnered with the right people, the market is ready and waiting for us. Our market is anybody who wants to be healthy, who cares about the quality of their life, who embraces an affordable luxury, and who cares to make more time for themselves. As long as there are overworked, over-stressed, time starved people in this world, there is an absolute need for Samovar Tea Lounge. And that is a need that we aim to fill as soon as possible.

If you’re interested in participating in our growth, come in and have a pot of tea and snack. If you think you have what it takes to join us for the “next level,” just email us. If you think we’re whacky, that’s ok too. Either way, thanks for reading, and happy drinking.

PS–In case you haven’t yet tried our new Japanese senchas from Mr. Ko in Kagoshima, please come in and check them out before the staff drinks them all! Ask for: Morning Dew, Lobocha, or Spring Twig

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Slow Money, Slow Food, Slow Tea, Slow Living

The world is getting fast, and the older you get, it seems the faster it gets. When you’re 18, life stretches out infinitely before you, you’re aware of it because you are just floating in the stream, and you feel eternally young. In your twenties, you are still light. You’ve got enough experience and cockiness and opinion to do anything. You can’t believe that you are already an adult. It seems like life has gone fast, but, you are still invincible.

The thirties come, and there’s no question: you are adult and truly independent. But you also see life  differently now. You’ve been through some pains, and even in your body you notice random little aches and pains at times. Your teens and twenties seem a long time ago, and, ‘forty” the years you always hear of people freaking out over, loom very closely. In your forties you cannot deny that aging is truly a part of your existence. And that’s when things kick into high gear, going really fast…cars, houses, families. Life starts to blur from then to the end.

Routine settles in with responsibilities. Things get stale, cynical, rote, and potentially bitter. Some people crave and create escape–any kind of excitement possible to break out of the rote routine, and to interrupt the speedway that life has become. But many times these escapes are not to a constructive end. Escape is not what we need from life. The secret to feeling alive, and to getting out of the routine is to…


We are members of the Slow Food Association because we believe in valuing and savoring those things in life which take time. Growing food, eating food, spending time with friends and family, relishing the process of life. We are physical human beings which operate at the speed of our hearts. As a company, we also believe in Slow Money. Valuable money takes time to make, and a valuable company takes time to succeed. By succeed I mean to create a lasting and positive influence on its community of customers, employees, vendors. It takes time to create value. How long? As long as it needs. The question for us is never “How fast can it be done?” Instead it’s “How slow will it be?”

The slower something is, the more valuable it becomes. Why? Because time is the one thing that cannot be created. Time is an investment of…time. The more time something takes, the more valuable it becomes. An iced tea takes 15 seconds to pour. It tastes cool, refreshing, slightly sweet and may have aroma and flavor of chamomile, or mint, or citrus. An organic Japanese sencha takes 5 minutes, an eternity to some customers, because we warm the cup and pot, measure the tea, decant and cool the water, steep the tea three minutes, remove the leaves, and then serve it. The taste is out of this world: buttery, grassy, slightly sweet, lingering. It is soothing on the nerves, and yet also gently uplifting. The experience takes time to create, and should take even more time to enjoy. The slowness of it makes if more profound and more valuable.

Our mission is to make the world a better place by delivering the ultimate tea experience. For us, tea is about Relaxation, Health, and Social Intimacy. Relaxation occurs by slowing down. Health takes time to develop. Social intimacy is about slowing down and spending time with friends and family.
Each of those is rooted in slowness, and, if the everybody were to slow down to appreciate those things, the world would be a much better place.

In slowness we are forced to experience the fluctuations and vacillations of our mind, our thinking, our patterns and habits, and our surroundings. Through slowness we witness the blowing of the wind, the honk of a horn, the smile of a passerby, the aroma of a cup of tea, the good morning kiss of a partner, the abilities of our body, the beauty inside our home.

Speed is a drug, whether it’s meth-amphetamines, or, just living in the fast lane. And, by looking at the pictures of people hooked on either the drug Speed, or the lifestyle Speed, the effects are very similar, and, pretty scary: haggard, nervous, darting, sunken eyes, sallow and pale complexion, drawn cheeks, stooped posture, jittery nerves…totally consumed.

How slow is slow enough?

Going slow is painful. We are addicted to the speed, and the faster we go, the faster we want to go. We continue pushing the pedal down, faster and faster, until….we redline. A car operating at red the line for long will break down. I heard recently that the most efficient speed for a car’s engine is 60 miles per hour, 1 mile a minute. But is is hard to slow down to 60 on the highway. It’s frightening and uncomfortable. It’s hard to pay attention to every breath, in and out. It’s hard to cook your meal slowly, focusing on the bounty you have, and even harder to focus on eating it slowly, no TV, no magazines and no talking to distract you.

But if you can slow down you will experience magic.

I don’t believe there is any other way. Slow things have more value, they take more time, and they deliver more. Slow food tastes better than fast food. Slow breathing makes you more relaxed than hyperventilating. Slow loving feels better. Friendships take time. A good meal takes time. Wild salmon takes time to grow up big and strong. Delicious produce takes time to go from seed to sprout to full grown and edible. Deep, meaningful, lasting companies take time to evolve, develop and prosper.

How do you live slower? Just do it.

Seriously, the littlest things will bring the biggest joys. The taste of sauteed garlic in olive oil. The aroma of jasmine flower in your cup. The feel of the kitchen table under your hands. The smile of a co-worker. The caress of your partner. Slowing down allows you to taste the flavors of life, at no cost other than your time and attention. Slow down and you will have more time, and time will mean much more.

Just slow down.

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Samovar Staff Speak Out: How to Spot Your Own Sweet Darjeeling


Tea for Two
Tea for Two

Julian, one of our most esteemed tea gurus talks tea, and dating and how to best blend the two!

You can learn so much about a person by what kind of tea they order. Don’t get me wrong – I was definitely a peppermint Stash kind of guy when I walked into Samovar for the first time on a man-date with one of my best friends. It was his secret date place, and, as it is for many people unaccustomed to camellia sinensis, the tea and herbal selection was quite intimidating to me at first. I knew I wanted to be adventurous, however, I had no idea how to even begin saying the word pu-erh, let alone know how to order or drink it (pooh-air, as it turns out).

My first hot sip at Samovar Tea Lounge was of the 8 Treasures, a sweet and refreshing mix of dates, berries, rock sugar and schizandra. It was served gong-fu style, which was handy to learn given I would begin my love affair with oolongs not long thereafter. Following that first experience I was hooked, and it was only a matter of time before I became interested in learning more about tea and joining the Samovar team.

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The Bottom Line is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Tea at Samovar= Profit + So Much More
Tea at Samovar= Profit + So Much More

The bottom line is profit, or not. What happens when the only goal is about financial profit? Generally speaking, if that’s the primary overarching goal, then nothing else matters. People don’t matter. The environment doesn’t matter. Even the longevity of the company doesn’t matter. Only profit matters, and it is achieved at all and any cost. That’s part of the problem with Wall Street and with business as a whole in today’s economy. A public company must show a profit, or be punished by the market. Companies do whatever it takes to show that profit to their shareholders: buy cheap, sell high, destroy the competition, and yank the necessary resources from the earth. That all works in the short term because it makes it easier to show profit to shareholders. But then what?

Everything is connected as we’re quickly finding out. Fill your SUV full of gas to go to the mall, and that gas has a cost that may not be apparent. Political, environmental and other costs may take some time to arise, but are clear and definite cost nevertheless. As Al Gore spoke to those other costs in his article For People and Planet, “…Not until we more broadly ‘price in’ the external costs of investment decisions across all sectors will we have a sustainable economy and society…”

But it’s a fact that the times, they are a-changing. Companies that are driven solely by profit are very quickly becoming “old-school.” That’s because the light is dawning on the interconnectedness of things, and the reality is that there’s more than only one bottom line that defines a business’ success. And although a business must be profitable in the traditional sense to succeed, today there are two other quantifiable metrics for business success, viability, and sustainability:  People and Planet.

Without profit a company loses the game of business. But without environmental stewardship and concern for humanity, the company loses its natural resources, the earth and its people lose their health, and we all go down the drain. When considering a company’s quantifiable, measurable bottom line, the environment must be strongly considered as do the employees of the company. It is the people who make a company, not the other way around.

Consider evaluating organizations not only on quarterly financial profits, but rather on whether they provide health insurance for their people, or sabbaticals, or maternity leave, or stock ownership in the company, or consistent, positive feedback and appreciation, along with free yoga and acupuncture. Or anything else that helps improve the lives of the employees. And then evaluate the company on what they do for the environment. Do they cause more good than harm? Do they recycle? How much? Do they use biodegradable cutlery, or plastic? Do they compost? Do they buy organic, local products?

The challenge and the reckoning time will come when you reach the checkout line. Are you willing to pay the price?  Many Americans shop based on price. Does that price include the true environmental cost? Does the price include supporting the local artisans and farmers who grew and processed the product for you? That’s what Fair Trade is for.  So, show your values with your dollars, and choose to support companies that survive by being profitable, and, attending to the environment and the people who work there.

When it’s all said and done, at the end of the day and the end of our lives, the question at hand is not “How much profit did I make?” Instead the question is “Did I make a difference? Did my life matter?” By creating, and supporting companies that make a difference to their people, to their customers, and to our environment, by doing so profitably, we know with assurance that our time spent here did make a difference, and left the world a better place. We don’t consider it grandiose. We consider it truth.