By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Washington may be famous for its coffee, but now in Bellingham there’s a place for tea enthusiasts to grab a drink.
Kuros Zahedi and his wife Sandra Loeffelmann started Saku Tea this spring.
It’s a tea shop serving and selling fine teas from around the world.
“We try to create an environment that’s kind of serene and beautiful,” Zahedi said, “create a little bit of a sanctuary.”
The shop at 833 North State St. is not like a coffee shop — it’s not the place to get a caffeine buzz while talking over the sound of the espresso machine and groups at the tables on either side.
The space at Saku Tea is close and quiet, full of natural wood and sun light.
It encourages contemplation and quiet conversation.
“I think it’s kind of a remedy to the hectic pace of the modern world,” Zahedi said.
They got hooked on fine teas when Zahedi took a sabbatical from his teaching job and he and Loeffelmann traveled the world.
They spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia.
“What turned us on to fine tea was the first sip of Taiwanese oolong,” he said.
It’s still his favorite kind, he described the flavor as ephemeral. “It almost puts you in a meditative state when you take a sip,” he said.
In many parts of the world, drinking tea isn’t just about the flavor; it is part of an experience.
Japanese tea ceremonies revolve around matcha tea, and tea is also sometimes tied to Buddhist meditation.
That’s kind of the experience they’ve tried to recreate in their shop.
The feeling of the tea shop is actually a collaboration of two different businesses — Saku Tea and Tide Lines retail store.
Tide Lines is run by artist Chelsea Jepson.
She carries products from 33 local artists, as well as her own handmade jewelry and artwork.
Jepson opened that store at its current location in 2015.
She was friends with Zahedi and Loeffelmann.
They mentioned that they had been looking for a space to open a tea shop.
At the same time, customers loved the peaceful feeling in Jepson’s store so much, they mentioned wanting an excuse to linger there.
“Customers were saying to me, ‘I really wish I could stay in this space,’” Jepson said. That’s when she had the idea to invite Saku to open inside her store.
“It’s just funny how it all came together,” Jepson said.
The collaboration has worked out for both businesses.
“They’re bringing a whole new customer to the retail component to my business,” she said.
“We’re both able to access a wider customer base.”
People walking by on the street are more likely to take notice and walk inside if there are already customers getting tea at the bar, Jepson said.
“It’s been really neat to see the kind of customer that it attracts,” she said, “and I think it’s a really unique offering for Bellingham.”
Customers can stay in the shop, drink their tea at the counter, browse the retail items for sale, or they can also get some loose-leaf tea to take home.
Not surprisingly, they specialize in Zahedi’s favorite, Taiwanese oolong.
But they carry around 50 varieties of tea, and can brew a number of different infusions and tea lattes in the shop.
One of the most common tea lattes in the U.S. is called a London Fog — made with earl gray tea, milk and vanilla syrup.
Saku serves a number of other lattes — each named for a different city.
One popular drink is matcha — specially grown green tea leaves that are dried and ground into a superfine powder.
It is purported to have greater health benefits than regular green tea because instead of steeping the leaves and discarding them, the entire leaf is ground up and dissolved into water.
Matcha is popular in China and Japan, but has been making its way west, commonly in the form of ice cream or Starbucks Frappuccinos.
Another popular drink at SAKU is called Bellingham Gold, and it’s a drink with turmeric and chai spices.
It tastes a little like a spicy chai latte, with bright yellow turmeric substituted in for the black tea.
Drinks made with milk and turmeric are called golden lattes or golden milk, and have exploded in popularity recently in coffee shops in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Turmeric is an earthy, slightly bitter spice that’s popular in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking (it’s what gives Indian curries their bright hues).
It has also been used in beverages for health purposes in parts of Asia for centuries, but is just now catching on around the world.
“It’s delicious for one thing, and it’s outstanding in its health properties,” Zahedi said. “It’s fun that the West is discovering it.” They hope to help bring the drink to the U.S.
In addition to selling the drink in their shop, and selling the powder for customers to take home and make themselves, they hope to package their mix and sell it to other coffee shops and grocery stores.
The Community Food Co-op has already expressed interest in carrying the product, Zahedi said.
For that to happen, however, their current space needs some adjusting.
In the first week of November, they’re planning on launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to help them bring six different drink powders to store shelves.
The goal is to package and sell two different matcha powders, two turmeric powders and two rooibos powders on store shelves and in coffee shops.
To make that happen they hope to raise money to add another counter and more storage area for their shops.
The campaign will also help them design the packaging for the new products as well and rearrange the store for more seating.
The current seating arrangement gets cramped if more than a handful of customers want to sit down.
However, Jepson said, there is one surprising upside to that.
“I didn’t really anticipate people being as outgoing as they have been,” she said.
Customers strike up conversations with each other, even if they’ve never met before.
“It’s really inspiring to see the exchanges that the space inspires,” she said.