After this year’s exclusive tea tasting at Taiwanese tea shop Té Company, we couldn’t resist going back for more. Tucked away next to Waverly Place in the West Village, Té Company is an intimate space that focuses on select Taiwanese teas accompanied with carefully crafted pairings. TAP-NY visited again to chat with Taiwanese American founder and owner Elena Liao to understand how she found her interest in Taiwanese tea and brought that experience to New York.
Can you tell us how this all got started?
I grew up in Taiwan. My parents had applied for a green card when I was 2, and we moved to California when I was 13. After high school there, I moved to Philadelphia for college and then New York for work. I worked in retail for quite a long time – about 10 years – where I did inventory planning and merchandise planning for a big box retailer. Over time, as I got to know myself and learned what it meant to work for a large company, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I began thinking through what else I could do.
When I was unemployed for a few weeks I decided to learn about tea, having drank a lot of tea growing up yet I knew very little about it. I was literally googling “what is oolong tea”, and I learned there was so much I didn’t know, and so much out there that I’m interested in knowing, and that’s how it all began. If we can make coffee interesting, why can’t we make tea interesting? Most people I worked with didn’t know what I was drinking every day. They never had a sip of real loose leaf brewed tea, and while I was working I couldn’t go home much to visit my family and bring back good tea. Even in New York, if you want good tea you’d have to go to like someone’s basement in Chinatown.
It became an opportunity for me to bridge the gap and bring this beverage into the popular domain. So that’s how I started. It took a few years of studying – reading books, googling, going into the field and visiting farmers – and over time you really do accumulate knowledge. While still working full time, I studied and trained my palate, and then my neighbor and then-president Jacqui told me to enter the TAP-NY entrepreneurship competition.
I won the competition – I was so surprised, since I entered mostly to put myself on a timeline – and with the prize winnings I was able to hire a designer. Two years later, in 2015, I decided to resign from my job and see what I could do with this, and a few months afterwards I found this space in West Village.
Can you give us a primer on the teas Té Company offers?
All teas – green tea, white teas, matcha, black teas, your English breakfast, earl grey – they’re all from the camellia sinensis plant. What makes them different is the way they’re processed: green tea is non-oxidized, while black tea is fully oxidized. Oxidation is when a plant interacts with the oxygen in the air and it decays – it’s the same process where when you cut open an avocado it browns. If you don’t want that to happen, you can add lemon juice or salt, and what you’re doing is killing the enzymes that enable oxidation. In the world of tea, you do the same thing except you use high heat instead of salt and acid to kill enzymes. For green teas, the moment you harvest the tea you heat it, and for black tea you let it sit – it’s the most decayed version of the tea. Oolong teas by definition are partially oxidized, anywhere between 10 – 80%.
At Té Company we specialize in Taiwanese teas. Not only do I have a personal connection there, but it serves as a great starting point for us as a very underserved type of tea. Ask anyone in the industry about Taiwanese teas, and they’ll agree that oolongs are the darling of the tea world.
We have a section on the menu called the Icons, dedicated to the most iconic styles of Taiwanese teas. There’s six which we think are the most representative of what Taiwan has to produce, of which one is black and the rest are oolongs.
Then there’s the Green Sanctuary section. We source these from a farm just outside of Taipei run by a group of monks that do a lot of experimenting on their all-organic teas. It’s a very casual and kind farm where anyone can go and visit, and we feature a few of their teas if you’re serious about no sprays, pesticides, or fertilizer. They’re quite interesting since the monks are always experimenting with different strands of tea plants and styles of making.
We also have a Singulars section. As we source, we’ll come across some small, family-owned younger generation farms, and we feature select one-of-a-kind interesting batches from these farms.
And last we have a few blends and herbals to round out our offering. Actually, we brought in a new wild Chrysanthemum tea from Hualien, Taiwan this year.
What’s it like running a physical store / business?
Going from working in a corporate office to actually running a store has been very different. The most challenging part of being a small business – it’s just me, my husband and a few staff members – is that you really can’t do the “headquarters stuff” and the “store stuff” together. Running a store takes every bit out of you. I thought I worked really hard in the office but it’s different than working on your feet and talking to people, and it takes a lot out of you. You have to clean the store, make sure its organized, and in the office there’s none of that.
In a store, you’re live every single day and you can’t miss a single beat. It’s a different mindset where you’re working in the store six days a week and on your one day off you’re never thinking “let me strategize and think about how to grow the business” – like, let me do some laundry maybe and get a massage and pay people. Some people I see growing so quickly and I have a lot of admiration for that.
How has your husband shaped the food items you offer in the store?
My husband was not supposed to work here from the beginning – it was an accident. He cooks for a living, and when we were launching the store he was between jobs and suggested just helping me open.
In the beginning, after opening the store I was spending so much of my time here that I ate all my meals in the store. I was getting takeout for every single meal – I actually called Seamless and asked if they had a VIP account for frequent customers (the answer was no). When you’re in hospitality – and I didn’t know this before – you don’t eat in the restaurant and sit at the table. The tables are for guests, not for you. And customers would ask me – what are you eating? And I’d be like, oh I dunno, some salad.
So my husband started making some snacks and that’s how we started serving food. At first we started with only cookies and muffins, but over time we kept adding things that were well received. This year, we finally took a minute to step back and reorganize our food menu, thinking through what was relevant to Taiwan and what made logistical sense for our store given that our kitchen is a block away.
Can you describe your connection with Taiwan?
When I grew up in Taiwan, I was young – I’ve been here since I was 13. Although I feel like I became an adult in the States, Taiwan really taught me how to appreciate. As a child growing up in Taiwan, I never appreciated how beautiful Taiwan is. Now, every time I go sourcing, Taiwan takes my breath away – how beautiful the land is, and how complex and interesting its background is.
When I was studying and learning about tea and its origin, I would often get deep into the history of Taiwan, China, and generally the history of the many teas of the world. And that has made me appreciate my origin more. It also helps that my parents live in Taiwan, and I used to have to beg for time off from work to go home for like seven days. Now I can go for three and a half weeks because I’m working and I can plan it that way.
What is sourcing in Taiwan like, and how do you approach it?
Everyone does this differently – for us, I knew nothing, and I first started by asking around. The first farm I visited (and we still buy their teas today) was actually my grandfather’s friend. My family actually grew up drinking their tea. And then you start learning – usually through connections – who in each area or region are the key players. There’s also a lot of trial and error, and a fair share of googling in Chinese.
And every year you do the same thing. If it’s families we’ve worked with for a while, we meet to talk about logistics or improvements or to try their latest batches. Otherwise, when visiting new families, we’ll be looking to expanding our selection. There’s 20,000 tea farmers in Taiwan. You never run out of options, but the challenge is finding the right match for your business.
What can we look forward to from Té Company this year?
We have a few new teas that we brought in and just put on the shelf in August. We’re redesigning our packaging – we’re about to hit print, so I can’t wait for that to come in. We’re also working on giving our cookies a little more tension so we can try to start shipping them, since shipping perishables is different than shipping teas. And as our customers know, we’re always trying out different types of food!