Friday April 1, 2011

An Obituary cuppa: a tea café

On Tuesday, some people celebrated an unfortunately obscure holiday, National Mom & Pop Business Owners' Day. A day to support small, family owned businesses and celebrate the unique contributions each makes to its community. In the grand tradition of American holidays, it centers around buying stuff. Yet, undoubtedly, it slipped past without notice.

Who ever heard of National Mom & Pop Business Owners Day, anyway? Let’s get honest. Officially sanctioned or not, it’s not really a holiday.

I wish with all my heart we did have a major holiday like that. I’ve devoted any number of blog posts to making the case for small, locally owned businesses (find them here). Lexington, in particular, suffers from a lack of support for local. Outback Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Applebees, and any other shumucky chain you’ve ever heard of never struggle for business here.

I wish people who fancy themselves culturally savvy would stop spending their money on piles of corporate sameness and seek out the amazing, creative businesses that make Lexington a unique place to eat, drink, and shop.

I especially wish that today.

Today, cuppa: a tea café will close its doors after one year of business. On April Fools’ Day. The irony hurts my heart. This isn’t a joke. This was someone’s dream. Someone’s livelihood. A physical manifestation of countless hours of hard work, determination, and hope. A place so filled with generosity of spirit they served every cup of tea out of heirloom family china. Lisa Samson, cuppa’s owner, told me she’d rather see her inherited set of cups and saucers chip and break with use than gather dust in some box in her attic.

So, so sadly, she will have both. Tomorrow, she will pack up dozens of beautiful cups, indeed chipped from loving use, and put them into storage.

Lexington didn’t have a casual tea house before cuppa. Plenty of places sell tea and plenty of cafes will overbrew a bag for you. We even have MonTea, which sells 55 kinds of loose leaf tea, but doesn’t provide any seating. We needed a comfy tea house. So Lisa built it. And no one came.

Actually, a lot of people did. I did.

But ten times more went to the Starbucks down the street. Met that client at Panera. Decided to take their homework to Atlanta Bread Company. Grabbed a watery cup of tea at Dunkin Donuts. Cuppa had free wi-fi, a private parking lot, loads of gorgeous study space, big tables, quite music, comfy couches. And every drink on the menu, including coffee drinks? Cheaper than the corporate equivalent, and far, far better.

loose leaf teas and tea liquor

I first went to cuppa a few days before it even opened.Lisa saw me peeking in the window and pulled me in off the street, made me a mug of tea, told me all about everything. I fell so in love. If you want to know how much I instantly loved that place, check out my yelp review which I wrote that very day. Cuppa’s first ever review.

Lisa partnered with a Los Angeles based tea importer and wholesaler called Art of Tea to offer over 75 different loose leaf teas. She ultimately chose Art of Tea as her importer because of their commitment to sourcing organic and fair trade teas.

She also wanted to offer a variety of uniquely flavored teas, “starter teas” to help expand Lexington’s tea culture beyond the yellow box. At the grocery store, and with 90% of the teas sold in cafes, “flavored” means “cheap fannings or tea dust sprayed with chemical flavors.” Remember that next time you pick up a box of Bigelow. Mmmm, artificial flavors. You get crappy tea, with a cheap, crappy flavor.

Not at cuppa. Cuppa had tea. Flavored. By, you know, actual ingredients. In fact, cuppa let me enjoy flavored tea for the first time.

Prime example, “1846” a tea sold at cuppa, named in honor of the year Joseph Walsh published one of the world’s first books on tea blending. A base of Nilgiri and Assam, with orange peel, Rooibos, rose petals, hibiscus, and safflower. It made a fantastic iced tea. Floral and citrusy, with a honeyed sweetness from the rooibos. (Pictured in the first collage, top left.)

chinese gunpowder green tea

Cuppa offered really unique single origin teas too. Coffee lovers know all of the pleasures of single origin coffees, each one has its own character, and whether it came from from Sumatra, Kona, Peru, or Tanzania, that special terroir comes through with every cup. So it goes with tea, though the casual tea drinker may not know it.

From gunpowder green, to Assam, Ceylon, and Tian Hu Shan, you could find it at cuppa and enjoy it by the pot, or cup. Sure, you can still buy some of these teas locally, but you’ll have to take them home. Forget about having someone else brew it up for you, bring it to you on the couch, and wash the dishes when it’s over. Forget about Ty creating a signature latte just for you.

Goodbye, Golden Monkey.

cornflower, safflower, and white peony tea

Goodbye, white coconut, you beautiful work of art. Goodbye white tea scattered with shaved coconut and flower petals. Goodbye star-burst in my teapot.

Goodbye, Starry Night.

starry night, loose leaf assam with white tea and vanilla bean

I loved this tea with my whole heart. I made it into ice cream. I baked it into cakes. I whisked it into caramel. Folded it into macarons. If you’ve ever visited Wine + Market or Table 310 for dessert, you’ve had a dessert with Starry Night incorporated in some way. The darkness of its Assam, balanced by bits of vanilla bean and white tea, absolutely transforms chocolate cake.

BraveTart loved cuppa. One of my very first photo shoots with Rosco took place in their Tiffany blue tea room (remember these fruit tarts?) and, Rosco photographed my scones there for our last blog post there too: a tea party fundraiser.

I walk past cuppa everyday on my way to work. A hot to-go mug of Starry Night latte has warmed my cold fingers on countless walks between W+M and 310. The tea Mr. BraveTart and I drink every morning comes from cuppa. In the last year, it has become a huge part of my life. From the friendships I’ve made with Lisa, and her phenomenal daughter Ty, to the blog posts I’ve written while snuggled on the couch there, and the tea I’ve featured in my desserts.

It’s fitting then, that this post on cuppa also marks the debut of a new BraveTart photographer. Don’t worry, Rosco hasn’t gone anywhere. He won’t give up this gravy train of desserts. But my friend Sarah Jane will also start contributing her photography here too. (And be sure to check out her website!)

Sarah went to cuppa for the first time to shoot these photos. After an hour, I had to leave and go to work, but she stayed on for the better part of the morning, talking with Lisa, shooting, drinking tea and just loving the space. Later, she told me she’d never buy grocery store tea again. Just walking into cuppa had that effect.

Its closing will truly leave a huge hole in Lexington’s café scene. If you live in Lexington, please visit cuppa today to say goodbye. In an effort to unload their excess inventory, they have slashed their already ridiculously affordable prices. Just go early, because when the tea’s gone, they will shut their doors forever.

Thank you Lisa. Thank you Ty. Thank you for a wonderful year of good tea and good friends. You will be sorely missed.

cuppa: a tea café, RIP
591 W. Short Street
Lexington, KY 40507

posted byStellaand filed under:  Local  Restaurants  Sarah Jane

25 comments and counting

Apr 01, 2011 ·  1:00 PM

This brought tears to my eyes. I love Lisa and Ty, and on our one visit to Cuppa (we live in Louisville), I absolutely FELL IN LOVE with the space, with the tea, with the food. Cuppa didn’t just brew tea, they brewed LOVE and served it liberally. Thank you for this affectionate tribute. The photos say it all, but your words are lovely too. It was a brave adventure, Lisa, and worth doing.

 · LizCurtisHiggs ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  1:06 PM

This is so sad! Having had a small (scrapbooking) business that didn’t survive the “recession” it saddens me when I hear of other small businesses closing up too.

 · Christina ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  1:25 PM

What a shame. This place sounds like it was truly amazing.

In a happier note, I am very excited about seeing Sarah Jane’s work on the blog in addition to Rosco’s. Her portfolio is beautiful!

 · Kaitlin ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  1:42 PM

Never had the opportunity to visit cuppa, as I live in Pennsylvania. But you made it sound wonderful, as I’m sure it was. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a wonderful place to enjoy a “cuppa”.

 · Cathy · 

Apr 01, 2011 ·  2:15 PM

what a moving story. i don’t know what it will take to get people to wake up to what is really important—-when community-based businesses are prettier, cheaper, more convenient and BETTER than the chain-store competition it’s hard to imagine how else to get through to people. boo for laziness and hurray for innovation.

 · sarah · 

Apr 01, 2011 ·  3:10 PM

I live in Louisville and only had the pleasure of visiting Cuppa once. We only stayed a very short while, as we were in a hurry to get home, but it was absolutely wonderful. I teared up hearing the sweet words you had to say about this beautiful place. Every time I think about going to Lexington, I always think “Oh, we can finally go back to the tea house!” It breaks to heart to think that won’t ever happen.
Thank you for taking time to honor such a wonderful local business. I hope Lisa and Ty have great success in their next adventure (they deserve it).

 · Beth ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  4:06 PM

Oh, this is such sad news. I have been following the start-up of Cuppa, and read such supportive comments about the tearoom. I had thought “If only I lived closer, that would definitely by on my list of favourite places”. Lisa and Ty, you have done a fantastic job. So sorry you have to close, but we do know that when God closes a door, He opens another, and you will walk through that door to begin a new adventure. God bless you all.

 · Lynn McCallum ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  6:33 PM

I remember that about Lexington—the way chains and “big box” stores had all the business. Whenever I visit, I make an intentional effort to visit the local stores that I know and love. I never made it to Cuppa, which opened after I moved, but I wish I had gotten the chance. Local business need more support!

 · Katie Bee ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  6:52 PM

I am a Kansas City girl, but longed to visit Lexington, especially after I learned that Lisa Samson had opened cuppa. What a beautiful tribute you’ve written to a fine establishment and amazing proprietors! I only wish this story had a different ending, and I a cuppa tea….

 · Katy McKenna ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  7:15 PM

Stella, this post made me cry. Of course, I’ve been fighting back the tears since I walked in my front door after having shut the door of cuppa for the last time. So much was worth it. Meeting you, making friends, drinking lots of tea and coffee, dreaming, chatting, and chatting, and chatting.

Thank you so much for this beautiful, beautiful tribute. I look forward to eating more of your wonderful desserts and hopefully actually getting together over a nice cup of tea here at my house. (I’ll even get us some Starry Night!) Love to you!

 · lisa ·

Apr 01, 2011 ·  9:35 PM

I’ve been in a state of melancholy about this all day. It’s rare to find a place that exudes the positive light that Cuppa has, and even rarer for me to find a place I truly feel at home. I will miss my Assam, but I’ll miss having a good excuse to come in and see Lisa and Ty more. Thank you for the beautiful tribute.

 · Renee · 

Apr 01, 2011 · 11:24 PM

This is heartbreaking! The world needs more special tea cafes, but unfortunately people don’t want to support them because it’s somehow “easier” to go get a cup of overpriced, caffeinated sugary sludge from Starbucks.

 · anna ·

Apr 02, 2011 ·  2:14 AM

My wife, Rhonda, and I had tea, coffee, and scones at Cuppa when visiting some dear friends in Lexington. It was wonderful! Cuppa was a real gem! God bless Lisa Samson!

 · Wyatt Roberts ·

Apr 02, 2011 ·  5:12 PM

I am so sorry to hear about this. I hoped to one day sit down in cuppa and enjoy the atmosphere, and the tea.

 · Suze ·

Apr 02, 2011 ·  5:35 PM

I will miss Cuppa deeply, as it was my favorite office. Lisa was possibly the nicest business owner on earth.

 · Joe Sonka ·

Apr 03, 2011 ·  3:58 PM

@Liz, OMG, I’ve read your books. I had no idea you lived in Louisville!

@Kaitlin, thanks! It was truly an awesome place that opened my eyes to a lot about tea. On that other note, I’m so looking forward to sharing more of Sarah’s photography with everyone!

@Cathy, thanks so much for taking the time to write even though you’ve never been to cuppa. Wherever you are, please support the small businesses that make your hometown a great place!

@Sarah, I know, right? I walk past a Starbucks on my way to work sometimes (depending my route), and I fell in step with these two hipster guys walking out. They were having this conversation that seemed to be about counter culture, life as an artist, and some friend who sold out and works at some kinda office. I only caught a bit, but I had to bite my tongue. Yeah, guys, nothing says “stickin’ it to the man” like slurping down a frappuchino from Starbeezy.

@Beth, I’m sorry you never made it back down to cuppa. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note here.

@Lynn, I know. It’s the saddest.

@Katie Bee, the proliferation of strip malls and big box stores seems to be the hallmark of Lexington. We may have too few wonderful small businesses, but fortunately the ones we do have are terrific.

@Katy, so sorry you never made it to cuppa. It would have been a long drive for some tea….but worth it!

@Renee, oh, I will so truly miss their Assam. I tried to stock up on Friday, but it had already sold out…

@anna, seriously. What’s funny about NYC is that it a) values small, independent EVERYTHING from restaurants, music labels, to clothiers, wineries, breweries, etc, but is simultaneously addicted to Starbucks. So weird!

@Wyatt, amen!

@Suze, so sorry you never had the chance. It was such a great place, I think I met someone new almost every time I went, and if not, I could almost guarantee I’d run into some old friend.

@Joe, well said! The space there was soothing but at the same time invigorating. Such a loss.

@Lisa, I totally cried while writing this. I will miss cuppa dearly, but am so thankful for the opportunity to have met you (and Ty!). Thanks so much for putting your mark on Jefferson Street. It was a beautiful year. I’m sure for every comment left here, there are dozens more who haven’t chimed in. We all loved cuppa; I wish we could have loved her more.

Looking forward to reading your next book, now that you’ll have loads of time to devote to it. Good luck!!


Apr 12, 2011 · 12:58 PM

As the wife of a small business owner, I can attest to the heart, and dedication that goes into running on a dream. I’m very sorry to hear of the closing of cuppa. Any place Stella enjoyed so much had to be fantastic! Best of luck in all you do Lisa!

 · Vicky · 

Apr 12, 2011 ·  8:33 PM

@Vicky, hey you! I love the elegance of your comment, “….dedication that goes into running on a dream.” Beautiful. As someone who has never owned her own business, I have nothing but admiration for those with the entrepreneurial spirit it takes to get one off the ground.


Apr 19, 2011 ·  1:11 AM

oh, i was so sad when i heard this.
lisa is one of my favorite authors, and such an inspiration! sadly, i never got around to taking the 10+ hr drive down to visit it.
i think i would’ve fallen in love with the place.

beautiful post, stella!

 · beka ·

Apr 30, 2011 ·  6:10 PM

I share your sadness of the gradual and almost un-noticed demise of the small business owners.

With them goes the hominess, the desire to please, their expertise and the quality.

 · Charlie · 

May 02, 2011 ·  8:57 PM

Charlie, thanks for stopping by. Truly, it does seem fewer and fewer people care whether they shop corporate or small-business. I’ll never understand.


Feb 19, 2012 · 10:38 PM

I just wanted to comment on your photos, they’re beautiful. You have done justice to some great tasting teas.

 · Rooibos Tea ·

Feb 20, 2012 · 10:03 AM

@Rooibos, what a fabulous coincidence, I’m having a cup of rooibos this morning. So glad you enjoyed, Sarah Jane did an amazing job with the photography, didn’t she?


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