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Ones to Watch | By Judy Kneiszel

T Salon
Customers go to T Salon for the flavor, fragrance, and healthfulness of tea.

Because Miriam Novalle loves tea so much, there’s not a grain of sugar in her T Salon shops.

“There’s nothing like a cup of tea when it’s great,” she says. “So I tell people to try the tea first before they cover and mask it with sugar … and they almost always come back and thank me.”

Novalle transforms countless New Yorkers into devoted tea drinkers at her Chelsea Market T Salon and her goal is to spread the joy of tea even farther. While plans to set up shop in Dubai were scrapped when the economic crisis hit the city, Novalle, who opened her first T Salon in 1992, went ahead and opened a second location in a more temperate climate in 2009. Her second store is on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

Novalle says people approach her almost every day about opening additional locations in New York or entering the Florida market, but having a new grandson living in Los Angeles prompted her to look west. She spends two weeks each month in New York and two weeks in Los Angeles.

“I’m very hands-on in the stores,” says the woman the New York Times dubbed the “tea guru” in 2000.

T Salon is both a tea bar and a retail store for loose tea and tea-making accessories. It is also a wholesale tea business, selling to restaurants, museums, yoga studios, and spas. Some are packaged as private-label teas, but all say “distributed by T Salon, New York” on the label. Because they carry that name, Novalle is picky about whom she sells to.

“I’m selective. I only put my tea in places that have consciousness,” Novalle says. “I care about who gets my tea. My tea has a global, green, sustainable focus.”

The stores are also designed with sustainability in mind. The lighting is made from recycled tea bags and the floors, ceilings, and shelves are 100 percent sustainable bamboo. All packaging is made of recycled paper and printed with soy ink. To-go containers and iced-tea cups are made from biodegradable corn plastic rather than petroleum-based plastic. The countertops are even tea-stained concrete.

Both T Salon locations are spacious with seating for 30–40 guests inside and another 20 outside. They are open from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Special events are regularly held in the stores, from traditional afternoon English teas to programs that entertain kids while their moms sit back and relax.

Forty percent of all T Salon in-store sales are beverages, 30 percent are tea leaves carried out to be prepared by the customer at home, and the rest is food and tea accessories. T Salon has a limited food menu that includes soups, sandwiches, and both vegan and nonvegan baked goods.

T Salon

President/Founder: Miriam Novalle

HQ: New York City

Year Started: 1992

Annual sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 2

Franchise Units: 0

www.tsalon.com

“Our food is farm-to-table fresh food delivered by gourmet caterers,” Novalle says. “We don’t make the food in house. Our business is tea.”

The vegan desserts, she says, have proved to be very popular at T Salon.

“People who don’t want milk and eggs are so excited to find out we carry them because nobody else near either location is doing that,” Novalle says. “We’ve found it to be a real winner.”

But tea remains the draw for the concept. T Salon carries 300 teas and blends including black, green, white, oolong, red, and herbal varieties along with fruit blends and wellness blends designed to alleviate everything from the common cold to the symptoms of menopause. They also sell showy blooming teas made from flowers that open up when immersed in a clear glass pot of hot water.

Novalle, who developed her olfactory sense as a perfumer, left the fragrance industry after 25 years and moved abroad, where she learned about tea production. She found she had a nose for tea, too, and was able to discern harmonious blends.

“When I started blending tea, the tea association said, ‘You can’t do that; you can’t blend tea, you can’t develop tea with fragrances, you’ll be ruining teas that have been grown for 5,000 years,’” she says. “Well, I’m a trailblazer and I blended tea. Now everyone blends tea.”

A 16-ounce cup of tea at T Salon starts at $3. Customers receive a cup of hot water and their choice of loose tea in an unbleached, biodegradable, abaca-paper filter that can be steeped immediately or when the drinker gets to his destination. Novalle says that at first the beverage prices at T Salon sound high to some consumers, but she says that the tea bag can be steeped in fresh water two or three times, providing more servings for the price than coffee.

Regular customers who want to go green and reduce the use of paper cups can purchase a biodegradable corn mug for $15 and have it refilled as often as they like for $2.

Novalle says those regular customers consider her store their “fuel station.”

“In the morning they need their morning jolt,” she says. “They want to be strong and alert so they order a cup of black tea. We’ll see them back for lunch and then they’ll stop in on the way home for something relaxing.”

Novalle says the number of male tea drinkers has grown in recent years to the point where the male-female customer split at T Salon is about 50-50.

“Men in the business world today have come to realize they want something that gives them strength and calmness but doesn’t make them jittery,” she says. “Tea keeps them focused, centered, and calm.”

More workplaces are bringing tea into the office coffee area, Novalle says, and as more people become exposed to good tea they are demanding higher quality.

While on the surface it would appear that Teavana, a tea chain with more than 100 stores in malls all over the country, is a competitor of T Salon, Novalle says she is thankful that the brand is educating customers.

“They do a great job teaching people about tea,” she says. “I give them credit.”

Novalle’s own workforce, which has grown to 30 with the addition of the second location, is also charged with teaching the public about the product. She trains staff to talk not only about tea’s flavor and health benefits, but also its fragrance and where the leaves come from. Part of that education is a liberal tasting policy, allowing customers to try before they buy in order to find their perfect cup.

“Every day is about the learning curve of the customer,” she says. And customers are getting more tea savvy every day.

But just who is T Salon’s customer?

“Globally, tea is the No. 1 beverage after water,” Novalle says. “The trend is for everyone to drink tea. There’s no one on the planet who doesn’t want to live longer. No one who doesn’t hear the word about health today, and tea is life and health.”