Friday, April 29, 2016
Interview and photos by Stacie Joy
Winn O’Donnell and business partner Helen He have owned and run Thirstea Café tea shop since July of 2009 on East 10th Street between Avenue A and First Avenue.
It was one of those places that I always passed by but didn't know anything about the business. So I stopped by to meet Winn, learn a bit more about the shop and teas in general.
What prompted you to open a tea shop and cafe here?
We have always loved the East Village. We were happy to find a storefront here. We wanted to open up a cafe as tea lovers and wanted to share our sense of taste and style. We have always loved how the East Village has a lot of mom-and-pop shops. We love the vibe of all the specialty stores and wanted to create one of our own.
How have things changed on your block and in the neighborhood during that time? How do you feel about the changes?
People come and go. Last time I counted, 16 stores have changed on our block since we opened. We get a little sad when regulars move away, but many of them still come by when they visit.
There are always a lot of changes in the neighborhood. After seven years, we’re pretty used to it, and we’re happy to see how the neighborhood evolves. We know many of our customers very well, and have seen them change jobs, get married, or have kids in these past years. It’s really nice to be able to see so many familiar faces grow together with us.
And sometimes we hear unfortunate news: Several weeks ago, we lost one of our most frequent customers who lived across the street. He would come in several times a day. I didn’t see him for a day and had a weird feeling. I texted him to check up on him and didn't get a response, which wasn’t normal. I knew something was wrong, then I found out he died. That day, I cried for an hour.
Who is the typical Thirstea customer?
There isn’t one, which is what makes them all so interesting. We could write a book of stories about how many different kinds of people have been in and talked to us over the years: 90 percent of people are awesome, 8 person are tolerable and 2 percent are in a special category. Some people drink tea purely for health benefits, and others drink it just for taste. There are a lot of dimensions to tea.
We have customers of all ages and professions who have been coming here for years. We’ve had reiki practitioners, drug dealers, secret service, a lie-detection expert, a television director, a liquids mathematician, undercover police, a priest, a porn star, corporate executives, a shoe designer, an origami expert and morticians, among others.
Natasha Lyonne from “Orange Is the New Black” used to come in a lot. She’s a total New Yorker with a dry sense of humor. She would order drinks with, “Give me one of those matcha situations,” and it always cracks me up. My favorite comedy director Dave McCary used to come in also but moved away. I get most excited to meet comedians because I used to do standup and improv. We were thrilled to meet Amy Sedaris, Fred Armisen and Todd Barry in our shop.
You have a large selection of teas; how do you guide tea newbies toward selecting the appropriate one? Do you teach your customers how to prepare tea?
I try to be as helpful as I can. I show them what we have. It’s very casual ... We don’t try to be snobby and pretend we know everything about tea. We like to chit chat and find out what our customers need and match them with something they’ll enjoy. I have had tens of thousands of conversations with customers about tea; I teach and also learn from them. People have even brought me stuff from foreign countries. I love selling teas to people if I think they’ll enjoy them at home.
What is the shop’s best-selling tea/drink?
Our best-selling drink is Taro bubble tea. Another specialty at our store is that we carry lots of teas by the cup, so we sometimes make off-menu bubble teas for regulars who are into quality teas with their tapioca. With these folks, I use my old bartending skills to create one-of-a-kind bubble teas, a service that people can only get at Thirstea.
What’s next for Thirstea?
We hope to continue to do what we do best, which is to satisfy all the tea drinkers out there, one cup at a time, and to make more friends along the way. We want to make more connections with the people we serve and share more stories with each other, and ultimately build a bigger and better Thirstea community.
Previously on EV Grieve:
Matcha Cafe Wabi now open on East 4th Street
Bright ideas: A lighting shop for East 7th Street
Exploring 2 like-minded small shops on East 6th Street
Celebrating 25 years at Paul's Da Burger Joint