Spilling The Tea

Sarah Chapman was an ice hockey player, and it’s what eventually led her into the tea business. As she put it, “I was an ice hockey player, so it was either hockey or tea.” If that seems like a non sequitur to you, allow Chapman to explain in her own words: “I played hockey for my first year on scholarship, and I was like what am I going to do with this? I wasn’t going to class.” So, she shaped up, started going to class, and began to explore her options.

“I didn’t want to play sports anymore, but I did drive down to look around and I fell in love with UNCG. I landed here and had no ties. I didn’t know anybody. I was in the CARP program and I thought maybe I would design women’s hockey equipment. I didn’t want to do dresses,” she says.

While in the CARP program, Chapman studied abroad in Thailand and “saw the truth about where things were being made and how things were being made and how people were being treated and it’s not a good thing. It’s horrifying and it’s just not something I wanted to be a part of.”

On top of a moral dilemma, Chapman also fell ill on the trip. “I couldn’t drink anything except for the tea,” she says. “Everything just kind of kept leading me back to this one thing, and the health benefits of it. I thought maybe I’d go around and ask people how to do this right, to be socially conscious and eco conscious and fair-trade and organic. I thought, ‘this is thing that’s going to be my vehicle to do that.’ And now, here we are with 100 something different types of tea. It’s an incredible amount of tea.”

“That’s one of few of many directions that led me here,” she laughed.

“It’s about as old as time, tea. We became a coffee society somehow, but I’m not a coffee person. I’ll drink a cup of coffee every once in a while and there are weeks that I’ll start out my morning with a cup of coffee, but if I’m not feeling well or I’m feeling a certain way, I would run to tea. I wanted to do that for people. If something as simple as a two-dollar cup of tea can make you happy for a few minutes, then by all means. If you need something warm or something comforting or even just something to soothe your throat, you should be able to just do that without running to the pharmacy.”

With her tea shop on State Street, Vida Pour Tea, Chapman has created an environment that is the physical embodiment of a warm hug. The lights aren’t too bright, but during the day there’s plenty of sunshine streaming through the front windows. Patrons are usually greeted by Chapman herself, who is perhaps the kindest person on the planet, which shows not just in her demeanor, which is warm and friendly and downright inspiring, but in her choice to only select those ingredients that aren’t harmful to people or the planet. “I source, so everything comes in fair-trade and organic, and then from there, the ingredients that are also fair-trade and organic get blended together. What you see on the menu is traditional, standard stuff and custom stuff that we’ve already done that’s been popular.”

Chapman has a handle on the market, as she grew the store out of her success with hosting tea parties (not the kind with fancy hats, she’s quick to assure me) and wholesale accounts. With opening a physical location, however, Chapman had to consider a lot of factors, especially as a woman in her mid-20s who was still trying to figure things out.

“I looked for a long time. I looked for a little over a year and it felt like forever. People talked to me like a five-year old and it was really annoying.” Then, Chapman found a diamond in the rough. “It was just a guy that had commercial space, which doesn’t happen anymore. I knew I had to put a lot of work into it, because upstairs was a commercial kitchen and there was carpet down here. It was just a mess. It was a really, really nice place at one time and then it went through three ownerships. You could tell that it just wasn’t loved anymore.”

Chapman rolled up her shirtsleeves and got to work. “We poured concrete; we put new walls up; we did all kinds of stuff. It was kind of a patience game; it’s much like tea, the wait. You wait for the right moment and be patient. We’re such a society of convenience and we need to get it done right that minute because you’re so used to having things right away. It was a struggle to find the right spot, and for a while, I didn’t know if this was going to be the right place. For the first year and a half, I think if one more person had asked me if we were serving crab cakes…”

Now, patrons appreciate the location. “I’ve been very lucky in that people are willing to go out of their way a little bit more to have a moment of peace. I designed it so that it was the anti-Starbucks. You have your own table and you’re away from other people, or you can hide in the back. You can read a book, some people have meetings back there.”

Things soon took off, thanks both to Chapman’s perseverance and the support of the community. “The local community in Greensboro is amazing. People are very supportive. If you’re doing your own thing and you’re doing a decent job at it, they want to help share it and support you.” Country clubs in town, coffee shops, and restaurants all have wholesale accounts with Vida Pour Tea. “You have to have connections,” says Chapman. “You can’t be too competitive and Greensboro is spread out enough that no one’s stepping on each other’s toes.” Chapman lauds Greensboro on its willingness to incorporate local products on menus, like Goat Lady Cheese or bread from Camino. “If you go to a local restaurant, you’ll see something,” she says, crediting the town’s positive attitude towards helping others as playing an instrumental role in her success.

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