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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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SF Weekly Votes Samovar Tea Lounge San Francisco’s Best Tea 2008

sfweekly_blue1“Some tea rooms are all about the scones and crumpets; others embrace the more tranquil practices of the East. Still others go the Moorish route and serve up dolmas and dates with the brewed mint leaves. Samovar, an inclusive sort of place in a quiet corner of the Castro (and now in a second location in Yerba Buena Gardens), honors all of these traditions and more…”

Click on this link to see the entire article:

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / [email protected]

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A New Samovar Blossoms in Hayes Valley


Samovar Tea Lounge III is now open!

As San Francisco’s oldest tea loung,e we have expanded into a new, third Samovar location. And we are really, really excited about it.

What’s old is new and what’s new becomes old.That seems to be the cycle of life. And now, after six years in business, we have opened in SF’s newest neighborhood, “Hayes Valley,” across the street from America’s oldest Zen institution, the San Francisco Zen Center. This oasis of a ‘hood is the perfect blend of zen and tea are now available for anyone near Hayes Valley, Japan Town, Civic Center, and Upper Market to enjoy. Shining in a bright red coat of paint, you can’t miss the spot: 297 Page St. @ Laguna St.

Given the current economic and political climate, we felt especially excited at the prospect of broadening the tea business in challenging times because of the goodness that the tea brings in especially difficult times: community, relaxation, health, social intimacy. There is perhaps more of a need for tea today than other time in recent history. And we are really thrilled to be here, alongside the Zen Center and all that that organization brings to SF.

What make this latest Samovar Tea Lounge special?

The Location
Being across the street from the San Francisco Zen Center, connecting the tradition of tea directly to the practice of sitting meditation makes for some really good chemistry. Of course you don’t have to be a meditater or a Buddhist to enjoy Samovar, but, as the mission the Zen Center is to cross all demographic boundaries to “…make accessible the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha…” just sitting across the street in the lounge sipping a Masala Chai, you can’t help but to feel a sense of peace from their strong neighborhood presence. And, the constant flow of zen students and teachers in and out of Samovar give you the chance to connect to some amazing people, doing really good things.

This space is situated in quiet, quintessential residential neighborhood outside the main commercial drag of Hayes Valley – giving you the perfect excuse to go shopping, and people watching, and then to escape…to a blissful cup of tea. Also, although it is tucked away, it is also incredibly central to the rail and bus Muni systems, the Bart, and, to walking from Market Street, Japan Town, the Fillmore, Hayes Valley, and Civic Center.

The Building Materials
Having the opportunity to operate two successful Samovar Tea Lounges over the past 6 years, we have had the luxury to see what works and what doesn’t in a tea lounge. This third location was the perfect chance to put into practice all the best elements. Here’s a partial list of what we were able to incorporate into the building of this location:

– Forest Stewardship Council certified wood flooring. All of our wood floors come from biodiverse, sustainably harvested timber, and than literally hand finished by artisans to create the functional, and beautiful aesthetic they embody.

– Tables and Bar – For all of our tables and bars, we went really, really, really local. Up in Marin a friend of ours salvaged some wind fallen redwood trees, 1200 year old trees to be exact. After getting seasoned for many years at his home, he finished them, and installed them – here at this location. Beautiful, natural, and from only 20 minutes away! We were especially excited about the tea bar. It’s the perfect place to taste tea, hang out and chat with us about he nuances of oolongs, or to bring a date. It’s a real bar, and yet only for tea!

– Electrical and equipment usage is all low energy consumption. Even the bathroom uses state of the art water faucet, hand drier, and lights!

– Metalwork is reclaimed metal from an old vinegar factory up in Northern California. The factory and vinegar is gone, but, the metal has remained and found a new home in beautifying and supporting this new space

The People
Our staff has been hired from a very large pool of applicants. We have a 4″ stack of resumes of people looking to work at Samovar, and this new staff at the Hayes Valley location made the cut. They are passionate about tea, live really interesting lives, love customer service, and are excited to be calling this new location their home away from home. How many other jobs out there have staff lingering around for three hours after the shift is done? Not many. Our folk love working here, and even when the work is done, they linger, sipping tea, talking about tastings, and crops and seasons, and hanging out with our customers. Thank you Samovarians for making our space so special.

Our History
First we opened during the peak of the Dot-Com bust, in a classic San Francisco coffee shop just outside the Castro, to serve the neighborhood with the salve tea offers. Then came the be-jeweled dome in Yerba Buena Gardens beneath this city’s skyscrapers, satisfying downtown workers, tourists, and convention-goers with an escape from the city’s frenzy.

And now, tucked in a quiet residential neighborhood across the street from the San Francisco Zen Center, comes this most exciting location yet. Please visit us and find out for yourself!

Samovar Hayes Valley is open….

Everyday: 10am-10pm

See you soon!

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Robiraki: Celebrating Tea New Year

Christine in Kimono
Christine in Kimono

With all the New Year’s celebrations of the last couple months, I thought I’d write about a more obscure and subdued New Year’s celebration that I attended: Robiraki. You may never have heard of Robiraki because it usually takes place in November. November, in the world of Chado, the Japanese tradition of tea preparation, is the month of the first tea of the winter season.

Robiraki is very much the Tea New Year for practitioners of Japanese tea. Two exciting things happen in November:
1) The tea that was picked, processed, and put into storage to settle in the Spring is unveiled and turned into Matcha (powdered green tea). And…
2) The hearth upon which the water is boiled for making tea in the Japanese tearoom goes from resting above ground for the warmer months, to being in the ground for the winter. So, the furo (literally “wind hearth,” or brazier) season changes to the ro (sunken hearth) season.

Robiraki is simply an excellent opportunity to gather friends together to celebrate the changing of the season and to finally sample the year’s Matcha harvest.

Where I live, in San Francisco, we don’t have the blessing of obvious season change. No crimson and golden fall leaves, no white (or yellow) snow, our summer days come in patches throughout the year… so its really nice to have an event like this to mark the passage of time.

This past November, the San Francisco chado students celebrated Robiraki at the Urasenke Foundation school of chanoyu. It was a blustery, rainy day, the kind where rain is coming at you from all directions. Arriving at the school with umbrella and ankle-length raincoat, I was transported into another, much dryer world.

The space had been prepared so beautifully. On display, in a hollowed out gourd, were all the instruments used to build the fire: a beautiful brown and gray feather from a female peacock, large cylinders of charcoal, small sticks covered with some white substance for kindling, the iron rings for carrying the kama (caste iron cauldron), and a wild boar-shaped incense container.

Guests came from all over the Bay area, including the Urasenke teacher at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach and two of her students. After settling into the quiet and dry dream world of the tearoom, we were served the zenzai, which was unlike anything I have ever had before: it was like a sweet red bean soup with whole red beans and the most delicious toasted mochi floating in it. It was such a treat!

In the tea room, the tokonoma (art alcove) had a gorgeous flower placement with a branch of orange and red leaves that looked like maple (but weren’t) and a very unusual pink Camellia that Christy Sensei searched far and wide for and finally found in a secret garden in Berkeley.Once the ro season has begun, we no longer see the wild flowers of spring and summer in the tearoom (even though we still find them in SF), now the only flowers are of the evergreen Camellia.

The scroll that hung in the tokonoma had bold characters that said MU JIN ZO, which means the Inexhaustible Treasure House– a sentiment that moved us to reflect on the inexhaustible treasure house of our lives.

For Robiraki thick tea (koicha) is served. This was only my second time drinking koicha and I have to say that it is definitely an acquired taste. To prepare it, it looked like the host poured in a whole 20 gram natsume (tea caddy) into the tea bowl (cha wan). Then she gracefully mixed the powder with boiling water using a bamboo whisk (chasen).

A higher grade, sweeter leaf tea is used for koicha than for the thin, frothy tea (usucha) that we serve at Samovar and learn to make as chado beginners. I was thankful for this sweeter Matcha because the koicha was potent enough without having too much bitterness to it. It was really something else: the consistency reminded me of hot fudge, and coated my mouth like smooth, thick, Matcha syrup.

Within moments my body felt the effects of such a concentrated dose of caffeine, catechins, vitamins, and anti-oxidants. Needless to say I was kookoo that evening… very, very jacked up.

Once everyone had had their share, we finished the Robiraki by admiring the utensils used to prepare the tea and the bowls used to serve it. That is one of my favorite parts of tea “ceremony;” the appreciation of all the attention to detail and careful selection of items by the host and recognition of the craftspeople who made the beautiful things that have been shared.

When I left the tea room, night had fallen and the rain had let up a bit. The first tea of the winter season coincided with the first rain. Things are in sync in the world of tea.


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Traveling Teacup: Samovar Tea Lounge, San Francisco

press02070a9by Cynthia Fazekas
While at the recent Winter Fancy Food show in San Francisco, I was to meet a tea friend for a lunch meeting during one of the show days. My friend Elisabeth, proprietor of the recently expanded Teacup in Seattle, brought her smiling self into our booth where we exchanged hugs and how-are-you’s and walked out of the Moscone Center in search of lunch. Our original intention was to go to the museum but as we crossed the walkway to Yerba Buena Gardens we noticed a much better option for two tea aficionados: Samovar Tea Lounge.

We looked at each other with a happy gleam and immediately decide this was our place. As it was my first time in San Francisco, I hadn’t realized Samovar was so close!

Inside boasts a warm contemporary feel with lots of wood and earth tones. We took a table by the window from which I could see the esplanade and a greenery covered walkway. Our server brought menus affixed to lovely bamboo boards. Nice touch! Elisabeth chose the English style tea service and I asked our server for his recommendation for a dairy-free choice. He suggested the Chinese tea service, which I happily accepted.

Our teas came out first, and we welcomed them with appreciation. Elisabeth’s selection came in a small modern style ceramic teapot. She kindly shared it with me and we discerned smooth but rich malty notes and later learned it was their Samovar Breakfast Blend. The three-tiered English tea service it perfectly accompanied a mushroom quiche, green salad, fruit and scone with jam and clotted cream. Elisabeth declared all to be delicious! I secretly coveted her scone.

My Chinese tea service began with a tea tray beset with a cast iron kettle, tiny black Yixing filled with dark fragrant leaves and a handle-less earthenware cup. Our soft-spoken server suggested a 45 second steep and expertly poured the first infusion for me. Sipping the brew revealed an earthy-fruity pu erh with a hint of ginger – Samovar’s lovely Blood Orange Pu Erh. I relished each sip and subsequent infusions. It paired well with my meal, which was a Chinese duck and veggie stir-fry with squash dumplings. The dumplings, by the way, were tender with a sweet and savory appeal that really hit the spot for me.

Most delightful – and filling! Once satiated and tea-filled, we were slightly sad to leave the peaceful ambiance of Samovar Tea Lounge and return to the noise and hustle of the trade show floor. A tea-oasis in a beautiful setting, this is just one of the three Samovar Tea Lounge locations. The newest is 297 Page Street at Laguna in the San Francisco Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Media Contact:
Jesse Cutler, Samovar: (415) 655-3431 / [email protected]

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When Jodet isn’t busy helping lead the Samovar team, or living in the downstairs basement of Samovar (OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration), she’s having herself a cup of Lychee Black. “The Lychee Black is an essence of who I am,” she says. “I love that tea like I love my mom. It’s my favorite tea of all time.”

“I drink it in my office every morning, and at times on my roof top overlooking the water at home while listening to the Idan Raichel Project. Pair it with a jook or an egg bowl, and you have yourself a perfect, warming meal! When Jodet isn’t sipping her Lychee, she’s practicing vinyasa yoga, obsessing about design and architecture, tending to her cat Madison, or flipping through Architectural Digest magazine.”

She has a love for print journalism, fashion photography, Chinese herbs and acupuncture, white wine and fine dining, and of course, the tea culture and its many meticulous details.

Jodet speaks Farsi , Armenian, English (of course), and is currently studying Spanish with the intent to become fluent. She’s attending school for her MBA.

“I grew up drinking tea from really beautiful, authentic, gold-plated, traditional Samovars in Iran. Tea has been an important part of my life since childhood.”

Ambassador Jodet
Ambassador Jodet
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Loraine (also known as Lobo) is one of the most easy-going people to know. She’s down-to-earth and always has a smile on her face.

The name for one of our infamous Japanese Senchas, Lobocha… was named after our Lobo, who has a passion for green teas.

Loraine has been working at Samovar since she was in diapers–maybe not exactly that long, but a long time coming.

When Lorraine isn’t traveling around the jungles of Thailand, or spinning records in the comfort of her home, she’s checking out live shows in the city, improving her skills as a DJ, dancing, buying new music equipment, checking out shows at the Mezzanine, eating sushi, or collecting good Sake. She’s quite adventurous, and loves to drink the Hika.

She pairs her green teas with a salmon maki bowl, and she has herself a perfect meal.

Ambassador Lobo
Ambassador Lobo
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Luis is one of our cooks here at Samovar, so it is no surprise that he always has an opinion on what teas to pair with different foods.

A native of Yucatan, Mexico, Luis loves to play different musical instruments on his free time. “I play the keyboard and the drums” Luis says, “I come from a very musical family, everyone in my family plays an instrument”.

But how does Luis know about tea? well, he has been drinking it his whole life “I grew up drinking tea, mostly herbal infusions, but I’ve always liked the way it brings people together, even if it is just for a brief moment.” Luis loves to drink the Silver Bud Melon Frost because of its flavor and aroma. He likes to pair his tea with the Duck Jook.

Ambassador Luis
Ambassador Luis