A One and Only Perspective: Tea Town
Fragrant and soothing, the gentle notes of tea leaves and freshly brewed coffee is the first thing to greet you when you find yourself at Tea Town in historic downtown Northport. The second is the friendly and warm people behind the counter who eagerly serve flavorful and proudly brewed teas! While it feels like the tea shop has been here forever, it wasn’t too long ago you had to wait to see the charming tea trailer or tea peddler as it bounced around town. Founders, Jonathan and Becca Gardner were living with their kids out in rural California, experiencing the growing organic and food-truck movement. It was after their kids grew older, and the closest middle school was an hour away, they made the decision to come back home to Alabama.
As they left the Golden State, they brought with them an excitement for those new trends they noticed and wanted to bring it to Tuscaloosa. Jonathan started working at the organic Snows Bend Farm and dreamt about starting a locally sourced food truck. When they were trying to plan out the idea, it was Becca who said they should start off as a tea truck. She figured since they had a passion for it, and there was an open market for a healthier brand of drinks in town it would work.
Although Alabama isn’t known for its tea leaf production, they still were set on using organically grown leaves, and sourcing from local farmers for anything else they could use like lavender or mint. The name came easily enough since T-Town is one of the more common nicknames for Tuscaloosa. It was the branding of the whimsical, turn of the century-style artwork that needed extra time to steep. Originally the brand would be based on the imagery of Victorian carnivals and circuses. Becca, who is an artist, originally envisioned the idea for the kind of carnival aesthetic.
While originally the truck and overall brand would have that kind of Victorian circus color scheme, it was toned down to the more boardwalk style with string lights and it’s easy to spot muted yellow truck. Becca drafted the ideas with the Victorian style woman in an almost acrobatic pose gently blowing off the playful steam for their logo. As Jonathan puts it, “ anything that looks good” she did.
Their first night with their signature tea truck was at the Kentuck Art Center, and then only two weeks later joined in the Kentuck Art Festival. After some initial bumps in settling into such a large crowd, the tea leaves started to settle. The tea truck was running around town for over a year and a half, spotted at the Tuscaloosa River Market, and art festivals before the idea of becoming a brick and mortar store.
Since the truck needed an official commissary to operate, Mary’s Cakes and Pastries offered to be theirs. So when the time came to pick a place to open out of, Mary gave them a section of the bakery to become their storefront. Here too, with the stained wood and rustic feel you can see the artful eye of Becca alongside the ideas for expanding into more than tea with kombucha, coffee, and other flavorful drinks.
Loving to cook, Jonathan took that passion and used it to create the flavors and smells of their teas with the same attention needed for any culinary creation. Even though tea is their main product, he hasn’t totally left his talent with food behind, and since opening their store they have had food to table nights in the courtyard. They have hosted various cooks and themed dinners in their store to keep that passion for food alive.
While the store and brand have grown successfully, the Gardners have scaled back to keep it going, while gaining more time to spend with their now high school aged kids. They take the time to enjoy their own gardening and exploring the growing art, music, and food scene around town while still keeping their dedication to Tea Town being for the people.
All while staying focused on being a local fixture, they have been able to branch out and sell their blends to other local cafes and stores. Even now they are gearing up to make appearances in Birmingham’s Pepper Place Farmers Market. With the art scene helping build up Tea Town, they’ve been able to give back to it with supporting not only Kentuck, but helping the new organization Sassafras; which is focused on bringing more bike paths, and their main idea for a park with a community garden, sculpture park, and a art center.
They also host poetry nights and events that celebrate the ever-growing art scene in Tuscaloosa. They even had their story come full circle when they hosted the first night for Local Roots outside their store. Jonathan and Becca are now trying to grow more of their own ingredients, but are hoping to get more into possibly farming their own tea leaves. Tea Town started as a little seed of an idea, blossomed into a truck, a store, and now enjoys helping out the community they came to serve one fresh cup of delicious tea at a time!