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Reflections from Jesse, Samovar’s Founder

I opened the first Samovar 6 years ago, at 498 Sanchez Street in the Castro-Mission, with the purpose of propagating the tea culture to modern San Francisco. I have spent much of my life pursuing the practice of Awareness, on the cushion, on the mat, in the dojo, back on the cushion, dojo, mat, and finally now, onto the balance sheet and P&L statement. Samovar is really the most recent incarnation in my personal practice: how to use business for achieving awareness. That’s it. I thought it would be a really interesting endeavor to create an organization that on the surface was a business in pursuit of success, and underneath was a vehicle for creating awareness and peace.

One of my favorite quotes is from renaissance man Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the Feldenkrais Technique, who said, “…if you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want….” That’s awareness. And, that’s a practice, a work in progress that is never complete. My goal with Samovar is to know what we’re doing, so that we can do what we want. And we want to serve as an exemplary role model for other businesses proving that a small business can exist and thrive, doing good things for the environment, the employees, the suppliers, and the investors. My aim is to make a positive difference in the world by our existing, and thriving. After all, what is nobler than serving, making a difference for the better for the good of the public?

We practice awareness not through sitting on the cushion, but by brewing tea for our guests, prepping and cooking food, and serving guests mindfully. Every detail has been questioned and at least attempted to be answered. From the source of our Houjicha Sencha, to the creator of our metalwork, to the artist or our red walls, the power consumption of our hand dryer, the selection of music, the fuel for our fireplace, the fabrication of our chai mugs, the patina of our copper, the supplier of our Kuan Yin, the grower of our rice, the brewer of our tamari, the forest source of our floors, the carpenter of our tea bar… Virtually every single aspect of Samovar has been attended to with singular intention, with awareness.

I’ll be honest: Sometimes we get the reputation for being “expensive.” I believe cost is relative and that the real question is where we choose to put our life energy, our money. At Samovar we put it in business relationships with very small, artisan families around the world who supply us with tea and other goodies. This tea, crafted seasonally, and in very small fresh batches costs more. It tastes better. Families, generally certified organic and fair trade farm it sustainably. It is fresh. It is healthier. And, we brew it to order, according to specific brewing instructions defining the scoop size, brew time, water temperature, specific handmade teaware, and, by a server who can answer your questions about why that tea has been selected and why it’s so special. That is what you get. We price our tea fairly for what we offer. And, when it comes right down to it, the actual profit margin is around 4%!

With that in mind, and then taking into consideration that as an employer we offer our staff health insurance, subsidized acupuncture, free yoga, English classes, Chado classes at the Urasenke Society, fully paid internships with our farmers in Taiwan, 2-month sabbaticals, frequent bonuses and recognition, free employee meals…we end up barely breaking even as a company.

Why do we offer so much to our staff when it takes so much from the bottom line? Because we feel strongly that if we support our staff, they will support our customers. And at the end of the day, we exist solely for our customers. Our prices include all those costs: product, staff, family suppliers, and, the cozy elegant environment. The ultimate question that we request from our guests is: Do you get value at Samovar? If you are treated kindly, able to relax, and feel better when you leave than when you arrived, then you will go out into the world and do good things. Then we’ve done our job.

That’s enough rambling. I can go on and on – so if you want to hear more please just stop by across the street and say hi, or have some tea and I or any of the staff there will be happy to wax on about the nuances of our tea bar, or the aroma of Hika Sencha. That’s easy for us.

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