By James Norwood Pratt • Photography courtesy of Southern Season
“For me, tea is a source of great pleasure. It means ritual, history, lore, the fruit of great labor and, at times, great craft. Tea nourishes my spirit. Also, it allows me to do what I love for a living,” says Caroline Cahan, America’s foremost retailer of fine teas.
Dropping out of college in the 1960s, Caroline fled her native Akron, Ohio, and “ran away to New York City, working in an ad agency by day and making pottery in the East Village by night.” She lived a nomadic life for a while before settling in a rural village outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and establishing a pottery studio. This good life prefaced an unexpected journey that began with her working part time at the area’s first specialty coffee roaster and boutique wine shop. There, her friend and mentor, coffee pioneer Fred Houk, helped train her palate. By 1990, she was managing the shop full time and beginning to realize the life of a retailer could combine her artist’s sensibility with her inherited family values of culture, warmth, and the enjoyment of good things.
Caroline was not alone in finding the right livelihood and the right place in Chapel Hill. A parallel journey was leading merchant Michael Barefoot to expand his gourmet specialty-food retail store, Southern Season, from its original 800 square feet to 28,000 square feet by 1992. And in that year, Michael recruited Caroline to head his newly expanded coffee department. Shortly after reaching this peak of her coffee career, Caroline’s doctor insisted she eliminate coffee entirely from her diet. She became increasingly interested in tea, first simply as a caffeine delivery system. About this time, a one-time student at Chapel Hill stopped by to introduce himself and look over her tea selection. (Full Disclosure: That former UNC student was I, and my tea talk with Caroline continues to this day.) One introduction led to another, and before too long, Caroline became a student of Roy Fong’s in San Francisco, where he had established America’s first traditional Chinese teahouse, complete with China’s most famous teas. She then began teaching her customers back in Chapel Hill to love the teas she loved.
If Southern Season hitched its wagon to a star in Caroline, the reverse is also true. The store doubled in size again in 2003 to become one of the largest gourmet markets in the United States.
TeaTime contributing editor Bruce Richardson has made annual speaking appearances at Southern Season for the past five years. “Caroline’s well-stocked tea counter and tea bar are the first things you see upon entering the store. That prominent placement speaks volumes about the store’s commitment to our country’s growing culture of tea.”
“[Caroline Cahan] is the principal reason North Carolina is drinking better tea than elsewhere,” says Devan Shah of International Tea Importers. “She started buying just five to seven teas of mine to enhance the store’s existing selection. She’s presently carrying over 100 teas of the best quality and of every type.”
What keeps her at it? “It’s the endless variety of teas and their nuances, much akin to wine,” says Caroline. “Each crop brings you new flavors.” Caroline buys all the teas and tea wares, but the department works by consensus. For example, all staff members taste every sample and must agree before a new product can be introduced. “The success of our department rests on the passion we all share for our products,” she explains.
“Conversation with a customer can be a joyful thing,” says Caroline, “but nothing connects you like tea.”
To peruse Southern Season’s tea offerings, visit the flagship store in Chapel Hill at 201 South Estes Drive or its online store at southernseason.com. For more information, call 888-929-7133.
TeaTime contributing editor James Norwood Pratt is a recognized authority on tea and tea lore. For more information about the books he has authored, including his eponymous Tea Dictionary, visit jamesnorwoodpratt.com. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.