Changing the World, Saving the World in the Name of Tea
You say Ka•LEE•sha, I say Ka•LAY•sha, but if you ask anyone in the know, they will politely inform you that the correct pronunciation is Ka•LY•sha—as in, Kaleisia Tea Lounge.“Our name is definitely a conversation starter,” says Kim Pham. “It’s a combination of the words Kaleidoscope and Asia.” The name celebrates the Asiatic roots of tea and the infinite varieties of tea that are cultivated around the world.
Kim, along with her partner, Lan Ha, founded Kaleisia Tea Lounge in the least likely of places and circumstances with a mission to uplift the community and nurture a tea culture where none had ever existed. Six years later, not only have they remained true to their mission, but they have accomplished so much more.
A visit to Kaleisia immediately invokes the feeling of a sense of place. The space is intimate and the atmosphere is welcoming. Positive vibes and comfortable seating (both indoor and on their patio) are abundant. The walls and shelves are adorned by paintings and ceramics sourced from local artists. Books and eclectic board games like the Chinese game of GO abound — they clearly want you to stay a while. If you know what you want to drink, you can go straight to the counter and place an order. It won’t take long for the friendly staff to learn your name AND your favorite beverage. But for many, one of the most pleasurable aspects of a Kaleisia Tea Lounge excursion is undoubtedly…
The Wall Of Tea
As you walk into the tea lounge, you’ll immediately notice over 100 varieties of loose tea neatly organized in small stainless steel canisters. Each one is color-coded with an easy to read label that is also easy to reach. That's right, customers are actually encouraged to touch, smell and compare the different teas that Kaleisia offers. All teas are custom blended in-house, and according to their website, “no two teas are alike.” One could spend quite a bit of time at The Wall of Tea; the experience is very engaging and the presentation made a strong impression on me.
My personal favorite is the Indian Masala Chai, and dare I say, it rivals the Masala Chai that I’ve had in the homes of some of my closest Indian friends. Another great tea that I tried was during one of the interviews for this article. I came to the tea lounge noticeably under the weather, and without missing a beat, instead of my normal Chai, Kim prepared me an IMMUNITEA (a special blend of echinacea, chamomile, peppermint, ginger, cardamom and other botanicals) that immediately opened up everything that was clogged in my head and chest—good stuff, ‘nuff said. But TEA is only part of the story.
Kim and Lan are not just business partners, they are also first cousins. Born one month apart, they were raised as sisters and best friends (their moms are actual sisters). Lan arrived in the United States from Vietnam with her family in 1986. Kim and her family arrived one year later. Life was difficult for Vietnamese refugees in those days. They grew up dirt poor. And without a safety net their families could have easily become homeless at any time. Kim and Lan struggled to find their place in American society and learning English was a big part of the challenge. But through it all, they were raised to always value humanity over profits. As Kim recalls, “Every spare moment outside of work or school was devoted to service. Our families were very active in the community.” And thus, the seeds of COMMUNI-TEA were planted.
When the time came for college, Kim left to study in California. Lan remained and studied in Tampa. Whenever Kim would return to visit, she would always gripe that there were no real places for people to gather in the USF area, much less to gather and drink tea. They often dreamed what it would be like to have such a place. When Kim returned home after graduation she set her sights to begin graduate studies and possibly earn an MBA. That’s when her mother intervened.
Kim’s mother has always been her closest advisor. Kim’s desire to open a tea shop was often discussed at home, but she figured that she might as well get an MBA. She could then start the business and if all else fails, at least she would have the degree as her fall back position. As Kim recalls, “My mother asked me, ‘Why don’t you get a real MBA instead of a fake piece of paper? Starting a business from scratch will be the best lesson you could ever learn. If you succeed,
great. If not, that’s your MBA. You would have learned something real that can be transferred to the workplace.’” This was all the encouragement that the girls needed.
The stage was set, Kim and Lan made the decision to open a tea shop, but they had their work cut out for them. Neither Kim nor Lan had much knowledge or experience in starting or running a business. “We felt going into this that we would lose,” says Kim. Nonetheless, fueled with a passion for tea and a desire to establish a community, the two embarked on a journey to figure it all out. Along the way they would challenge common wisdom, rewrite the startup playbook and embrace an emerging business model that was congruent with being profitable AND socially conscious.
By Any Other Name
In addition to picking a name that is difficult to pronounce, the location for Kaleisia presented its own challenges. Kim studied public policy at Occidental College in California. Her experience working in the field provided insights into how they would approach choosing a location for Kaleisia, but not necessarily for the reasons one might expect. They chose a location in the heart of Suitcase City, an area adjacent and to the west of USF, so-called for its transient population, high crime rate and urban blight. “If tea was the number one reason for opening our business we would have done so in a place like Hyde Park or New Tampa.”
For Kim and Lan it was “a no-brainer” to open the tea lounge at the precise corner where the crime rate was highest—15th and Fletcher. Businesses were shutting down and relocating from the area to places like New Tampa or Citrus Park. The commercial properties that were vacated became run down and useless. When this happens the city has to assume control, but it’s difficult to stop the hemorrhaging, so the crime rate increases causing more businesses to flee—it’s a catch-22. Kim and Lan wanted to change that.
The decision to bring tea culture to Suitcase City would be one of many pivotal decisions that Kim and Lan would make on their way to becoming entrepreneurs. Says Kim, “We read so many business 101 and entrepreneurial books, but we ultimately went against most of the conventional advice.”
For starters, after they signed their lease, they waited six months before opening the doors to the public. Most people who lease a storefront are usually open for business within a month or two. Kim and Lan are perfectionists, they wanted to take the time to research their products and get everything just right.
It would be easy to assume that Kim and Lan were well-funded, and thus, could afford the luxury of taking their own sweet time. To the contrary, the entire Kaleisia startup was funded on credit card debt (much like an indie filmmaker might fund a movie production). “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Ben Franklin. In Kim’s words, “Our reasoning at the time was that it’s better to suck up the cost now, or rush in and forever be out of business. Customers don’t see your business as an evolving project. They’ll buy one product, and if they like it they’ll return, if not, you’ll never see them again.” The moral—first impressions matter.
When they finally opened their doors for business in April of 2005, it was very important for Kaleisia to not only be perceived as a safe place to come and buy tea,
but a place to also stay, hang out and drink tea. According to Kim, “Tea is what brings people together.” When she speaks, her passion for tea culture is refreshing and infectious. She further explains, “Yes, we sell tea. Yes, tea is a big part of who we are, but when we opened our shop, we really wanted to create a sense of community.”
Among the ways that Kaleisia expresses its support to the community is by providing space for local artists to display and sell their works. They never charge a commission or any type of fee. The walls and shelves always look beautiful, and Kim and Lan are grateful to have the space to provide. They recently held a Henna 101 workshop and Knitting Night is a popular weekly event.
Of course, one of the primary ways Kaleisia makes itself accessible to the community is with their prices. Kim and Lan understood right away that their prices
had to be affordable. Students from USF and others from the area can’t afford to, nor should they have to, pay a premium or be overcharged for style, just because Kaleisia is a niche business. Most drinks at the tea lounge average around $3. Instead of selling a bunch of random food, they choose to sell healthy all-vegan fare—everything is priced under $5. It is also worth noting that Kaleisia’s prices have not been raised since they first opened—not for inflation or even the bad economy.
“The USF community supports Kaleisia tremendously,” says Kim. “It’s fair to say that we probably would not have survived without them.” Kim credits the student community for keeping things fresh. “College kids are so much fun to be around. Students like change, they help us change. They keep us on top of the latest trends, and they’re very innovative and creative. We wouldn’t want to be very far away from them.”
Before buzzwords like Social Media and Crowdsourcing became part of the vernacular, Kim and Lan, from the beginning, solicited feedback from the community on everything you could possibly imagine. But it wasn’t just feedback that they were after, they literally wanted their customers to make suggestions and decisions. For example:
- The community picked the design for their logo and branding.
- The community asked for T-shirts. A T-shirt design contest was held that resulted in the stylish “I Love Tea” shirts which they sell for $10 at the shop or online. Initially, they were only available in red. Customers asked for (and got) more color choices.
- In the beginning they didn’t have food until everyone started asking for it. Now they have food.
- Music nights, multi-cultural workshops, etc. are all community driven.
- The community even chose which day of the week the tea lounge would be closed. FYI, it’s Tuesday.
The list goes on, but Kim and Lan are quick to downplay their influence on the whole operation. And they’re not feigning modesty either, they really mean it. “We simply had an idea,” says Kim. “Beyond getting things started, the success of this place really has very little to do with us. This business exists on its own and it’s here to be molded by the people who utilize the business.” More evidence of this reality, this truth can be found among the staff.
In six years, Kaleisia has had zero staff turnover. As Kim explains, “From day one, we’ve never lost a single person. Everyone who has ever worked here, still works here. They might leave town, graduate or move on to other careers, but they all remain part of the family. In their spare time or if they come back to town,
someone will always come to the shop and lend a hand.” Why on Earth would this be so? The answer is simple. The same empowerment that exists for the community also exists for the staff. Here's why:
- Shifts are not imposed. Everyone works out their schedule according to their needs.
- If someone needs a day off or can’t work on a particular day, and if no one else is available, Kim or Lan will fill in. They don’t see this as an inconvenience, they view it as their responsibility to the staff.
- The staff earns above the living wage for restaurant workers.
- If a raise is offered, so too is the choice of having their health insurance or some other benefit covered in lieu of a raise.
- The staff eats and drinks for free.
- The staff helps decide the pricing, menu items, entertainment choices, and even hiring decisions.
There’s a lot to wrap your head around when thinking about how all of this
community love could possibly be self-sustaining, or even profitable. But according to Kim, after only two years, they were able to pay off their credit card debt, pull a modest income, and be completely debt free and in the black. They even saved enough money for a possible expansion, but when the economy tanked, they pulled back (though, they may revisit the idea at a later date). Even Kim’s mother was surprised after learning just over a year ago, that the business was doing so well. But to really understand how a community has coalesced around Kaleisia, you’ll need to experience…
Gifts Of Love
GIFTS OF LOVE is Kaleisia Tea Lounge’s annual community charity fundraiser. Each year in March, the tea lounge holds a mini festival for the benefit of a local community charity or cause. Over 200 people are usually in attendance. A section of the parking lot is cordoned off to make room for a stage area. The inside and outdoor patio of the tea lounge
is partitioned for various activities like a photo booth, face-painting, henna tatoos, a caricature artist, etc. Music, live entertainment and raffles run throughout the event. But the highlight of GIFTS OF LOVE are the auctions (both silent and live).
Local businesses from within and outside the community donate various items of moderate value which are put up for bid. To encourage participation, starting bids are between $20 and $40. One hundred percent of all proceeds are donated by the community directly to the charity as a single cash payment.
This year’s GOL recipient was an organization called, B.R.I.D.G.E., a free health clinic run by students from the USF School of Medicine. Instead of just having a fundraiser for a faceless charity, the idea behind GOL is to bring the local charity and the community together so they can interact and learn about one another. The charity is guaranteed at least $3000 by Kaleisia (whether they raise it or not). GIFTS OF LOVE money has been raised to fight autism and has even made its way to Africa to help build a birthing center for women in Uganda.
April marks the sixth anniversary for Kaleisia Tea Lounge. What began as a made up word with little meaning to anyone but its founders, has grown and evolved to mean many things to many people. “What we do is not proprietary,” says Kim “we run our business the way we run our lives.”
Many people from the community who may have moved on to other states will still order loose tea through TheTeaLounge.com. They could easily buy their tea from any number of places, but they continue to buy from Kaleisia because they know that they are participating in something bigger. People who were never exposed to tea, who never touched it, who never smelled it have become tea connoisseurs purely on the basis of having direct access to a place like Kaleisia.
Chances are, you already drink Kaleisia Tea and don’t even know it. Places like Cafe Hey, The Corner Store, Grass Root Organic Restaurant and many others buy their tea wholesale directly from Kaleisia. There was a time, in the beginning, when Kim had to
personally deliver tea to businesses that would simply refuse to come to “the hood”. Today, most buyers have no problem making the trek to 15th and Fletcher to pick up their tea.
Says Kim, “We believe that if you have a good product and you love the people that you serve and you really treat the business, not just as a money maker, but as a community builder, then people from all over will come. And a once declining neighborhood will gradually shed its bad
reputation and regain the trust of its people and ultimately, its good standing in the community.”
For me, the story of Kaleisia is like the story of the Lotus. The Lotus grows from the mud through murky waters. Its flowers blossom pure and unstained. The idea of Kaleisia was like a journey from the mud, through murky water manifesting itself as pure, unstained BEAU-TEA.