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Chrysler has greatly affected life in the Detroit area over the decades, and now it has brought the Motor City a Chinese teashop—albeit indirectly.
Janice and Jim Girling, founders of Goldfish Tea, were both working for the automaker when they were offered the opportunity to go to China for two years to help build an assembly plant outside of Beijing.
“We were living in Beijing and on weekends we just liked to go out exploring,” Janice says.
While on an exploration one day, a dragon-embossed tea set caught the couple’s attention. “We went to look at it inside what turned out to be a wholesale tea market,” Janice says. “Two Chinese ladies motioned for us to sit down at the tea bar and we stayed for three hours sampling tea.”
Not knowing anything about tea, the now-former coffee drinkers bought a bag of loose tea—ginseng oolong—and went back to where they were staying. They did research on the Internet to learn how to prepare it.
“We went back to the market every weekend after that with a translator and learned about tea,” Jim says. “We decided we wanted to do something with tea when we moved home again, so we researched who was selling tea and how. We put a plan together of everything we would do in a store.”
After their tenure in China was up, the Girlings tested their idea on family and friends, hosting tea tastings in their home. Then they took the idea further by conducting tastings and selling tea at craft shows.
“We did it just the way we learned it sitting behind the tea bar,” Janice says. “And we realized we had something unique.”
In February 2008, the Girlings opened the 1,850-square foot Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The décor is traditional Chinese and each piece of furniture was handmade from recycled materials like old doors. Everything, from the fabric on the benches to the original artwork hanging on the walls, was imported from China. The shop has 70 seats including three tea bars. In addition to tea in beverage form, Goldfish sells loose tea, tea-making accessories, and a few jewelry and gift items.
The company serves 50 varieties of tea. All are straight teas, not blends, and all are Chinese. One of the biggest sellers is the ginseng oolong the Girlings first tasted in China. Other popular Goldfish teas include honey phoenix oolong and several jasmine varieties.
FOUNDERS: Janice and Jim Girling
HQ: Royal Oak, Michigan
YEAR STARTED: 2008
ANNUAL SALES: More than $200,000
TOTAL UNITS: 1
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Goldfish Tea also sells soups, sandwiches, and salads made in-house in a 300-square-foot kitchen/prep area. Bakery items are purchased from an outside source.
The average customer spends about $7 at Goldfish, grabbing a cup of tea and something to eat. Tea to go ranges from $2.75 to $3.25 for a 16-ounce cup.
“You get your tea leaves in a sack,” Janice says. “Most teas will be good for at least three steepings. You can use them over until you don’t like the taste anymore.”
Customers who drink their tea at Goldfish can order a single infuser mug or a pot of tea. A small pot yields two or three cups, a large pot four to five cups. The teapots come with infuser baskets, loose tea, and a timer so customers can steep their tea at their table for the precise amount of time advised. Green, white, and jasmine teas are served in clear glasses, oolongs are served in clay, and black tea is served in ceramic.
“This creates a unique visual experience for the customers,” Janice says.
But there’s a practical reason for the variety of vessels, too. Some teas stain, Janice says, so if they used the same serving ware for all teas they might not be able to get it clean. Also, the pots could start to pull in some of the black tea’s flavor.
There is also variety in the self-serve hot water available in the store for re-steeping tea leaves.
“The water is set at different temperatures,” Janice says. “Green and white teas require lower temperatures than black and oolong teas. We teach our customers that.”
Jim and Janice both left their jobs at Chrysler to run the store along with four employees they hired and trained in their home three months before opening.
“They would come to our house to make tea and talk about tea and taste tea,” Janice says. “We put a huge emphasis on having well-trained employees who can educate customers. A lot of customers come in with a deer-in-the-headlights look on their face. There’s a lot of educating that goes on.”
She says first timers are often pleasantly surprised to learn tastings at the tea bars are complimentary. “We do about a half dozen tastings a week for up to six people for no charge,” Janice says.
The business has been growing and changing as the Girlings react to customer requests.
“We didn’t have herbal teas at first, but there was a huge demand for noncaffeinated teas, so we brought on seven herbals,” Janice says. “We also added coffee to the menu for the inevitable one guy in every group who won’t drink tea.”
Goldfish Tea is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Live music and events like book signings and poetry readings keep the shop busy on many evenings, but unlike a coffee shop, early mornings are slow in the tea business, Jim says.
“In the morning people are still coffee drinkers,” he says.
During the rest of the day, however, Goldfish Tea is occupied by people using its wireless Internet, studying, playing board games, or just getting together to chat.
“We figured we’d get a mix of males and females ages 18 to 26 … a young eclectic crowd looking to try new things,” Jim says. “And we also thought we’d attract women in their late 30s to early 50s who are into health. But the biggest surprise to us has been the number of men, ages 18 to 60. On any given day we see a higher percentage of men. They are health-conscious too and don’t like busy coffee shops.”
Of the regular customers who come into Goldfish Tea more than twice a week, Jim says nine out of 10 are male.
In a city as hard hit by the economic crisis as Detroit, males and females alike could probably benefit from a calming cup of tea, and the Girlings would like to spread that calm around.
“I could see the Detroit area supporting three to five stores,” Jim says. “In fact, we frequently get requests to open stores all over the city, but we’ll have to see some improvement in the economy before expanding.”