By James Norwood Pratt • Photography courtesy Doug Livingston
By the time I met them, Julee Rosanoff and Sue Zuege were already successful businesswomen. They’d been friends almost 20 years—ever since they were social workers together—before they opened Perennial Tea Room in Seattle.
It all seems simple enough the way they tell it. They needed to work and began by selling baskets of tea-related products, which soon led to a mail-order business and to teaching a class on afternoon tea at a downtown hotel. With students becoming regular customers, the homes and basements of both women gradually began filling up with tea and products for sale.
“We needed a retail space that would be comfortable for customers from all around the Puget Sound area and would also attract tourists in summer when all the locals were gone,” says Sue. They finally discovered a small storefront they could afford in Post Alley near historic Pike’s Market. And that’s where the tearoom opened in 1990 and where it stands today.
Obliged to create a demand where there wasn’t one, Sue and Julee welcomed every opportunity to share their love of tea. With the support of their spouses, who had steady incomes, the two gradually made Perennial a financial success.
At the 2004 TakeMe2Tea Expo, Julee was asked to lead a discussion about women-owned businesses. There she met Mark Mooradian of Boston’s MEM Imports. He inspired Julee with a tea-focused dinner he hosted at another trade show that same year. Upon returning to Seattle, she planned her own such dinner and sold tickets. The chef explained each course, and I talked a bit about each tea served. Julee recalls, “It was a great time! We did it again in 2007, and, well, tea things began to happen.”
Later that year, she arranged a lunch, and it was here that the Puget Sound Tea Education Association was formed to stage a tea party for the whole region. Founders (in addition to Perennial) were Barnes & Watson, Teahouse Kuan Yin, Tea Geek (a.k.a. tea educator Michael Coffey), and Village Yarn and Tea. Choice Organic Teas, Sa Tea, and others soon followed.
Only one month before this big event, Julee and her husband, Doug, assisted at the first Slow Food Festival in San Francisco, where they discovered a way to conduct large-scale tea tastings. Interestingly, such tea tastings were to prove the most popular attraction at the tea party Julee instigated and chaired. From that point on, the story of the Perennial Tea Room is largely inseparable from that of the Northwest Tea Festival (as the regional event became known), now in its sixth year.
“My partnership with Sue has made it possible for me to plan and lead this event,” Julee admits. “She holds down the fort at Perennial, manages staffing, and develops our show booth, essentially giving me free rein to manage the festival.”
Perennial Tea Room, like many another business, has weathered some lean months since 2008, but Sue and Julee have made sure it survived to thrive again. What they could never have guessed is the way the power of their example has, like their tea, warmed thousands who have taken inspiration from them and their good works. Today Seattle has a vibrant tea scene. Farther afield, the Northwest Tea Festival inspired Devan Shah of International Tea Importers to organize the Los Angeles International Tea Festival, now in its third year, and Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court to start the San Francisco International Tea Festival. Both events have given thousands of tea lovers cause to rejoice and to be grateful for that tearoom two dedicated ladies started in 1990 near Seattle’s Pike’s Market.
The 2014 Northwest Tea Festival will take place October 4 and 5 in the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. To learn more about the festival, go to nwteafestival.com.
TeaTime contributing editor James Norwood Pratt, a recognized authority on tea and tea lore, is an honorary founder and board member of the Northwest Tea Festival. Because of his continuing support for tea, Julee Rosanoff dedicates the festival to him each year. For more information about Norwood and the books he has authored, visit jamesnorwoodpratt.com.