By Betty Terry • Photography by Robert Sean Dibble
Capital Teas founders Manelle and Peter Martino are inspiring a new generation of tea lovers.
Manelle Martino didn’t set out to start a tea company. The New York native, who is now chairman of Annapolis, Maryland–based Capital Teas, was working for a dot-com company in 2006 when a random conversation changed her life.
The origins of Manelle’s life in tea go back five generations to her great-great-grandfather Francis Van Ryk. A Dutch immigrant, he was among the first tea-estate managers in the late 1800s to plant tea in the then-developing tea region of Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. His descendants have been involved in the tea trade for more than 120 years.
His great-great-granddaughter Manelle was not one of them, that is, until the death of her grandmother brought family members from around the world together for her funeral. One of these was Manelle’s second cousin Hilary White, owner of Elmstock Tea Company in Perth, Australia. One evening when the conversation came around to tea, Hilary told Manelle and her husband, Peter Martino, that he saw the United States as a greatly untapped market and encouraged them to consider starting a tea-based business.
The Martinos studied the U.S. tea industry and found Hilary’s idea a good one, but they weren’t sure about opening a retail store—until they found the perfect spot in Annapolis, Maryland. “That location inspired everything,” Manelle says. “The three-story storefront looks like a shop out of a Dickens novel.”
The first store opened in January 2007 and became the blueprint for Capital Teas. Two of Manelle’s decisionsfor the initial location have become signature items in the five Capital Teas stores that have followed—an 19th-century bar front that serves as a cash wrap desk and a sniffing wall.
“Tea is a multisensory experience,” Manelle explains. “Our sniffing walls engage the senses and give customers an idea of what the tea is going to taste like.” In each store, glass jars filled with loose-leaf tea line narrow shelves. “You may not be able to taste a hundred different teas, but you can smell a good number of them without getting full,” Manelle points out.
Those teas are sourced from all over the world—China, Japan, India, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Africa, even the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal. Capital Teas also offers a tea that comes from the estate Manelle’s ancestor originally planted.
The Martinos do a lot of custom blending in their production facility in Annapolis, where blending tea is a group effort. Almost anything can inspire the couple to create a new tea blend.
“Since I’m half Hispanic, I really wanted to bring some Latin flair to our company,” Manelle says. “So we came up with Nuevo Latino blends, using ingredients that would represent Hispanic culture. Mexican Mango Chili Maté is one of my favorite teas, and it has been hugely popular.”
Giving each Capital Teas customer a positive experience—whether they purchase tea online or in-store—is just as high a priority for the Martinos as providing superior-quality tea. They always provide their phone number online and in their advertisements in case customers need to speak to a person. “When you call Capital Teas, you may get me or Peter on the phone.”
The people who work at each Capital Teas store, as well as its headquarters staff, are extremely knowledgeable about tea. “Everyone is well trained, and they have tried most, if not all, of our teas,” Manelle says. “They really adhere to the mission of Capital Teas—to educate and inspire people through the wonders of tea, one cup at a time.”
Capital Teas has eight locations in Maryland, Virginia, and the greater Washington, D.C., area, with plans for more. For more information or to order tea, go to capitalteas.com or call 888-484-TEAS (8327).