Austin Tea Party

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The Steeping Room, Austin’s only modern teahouse sanctuary serving up the ultimate tea experience, is a welcome addition to the city’s restaurant landscape. Owners Emily Morrison and Amy March, who see their fortune in tealeaves, are being heralded for helping to create Central Texas’ unique tea culture.

Not surprisingly, the six-year relationship between the owners of The Steeping Room, Emily Morrison and Amy March, was consummated with cake – a freshly baked, homemade orange teacake.

It all took place in a production kitchen in Michigan, where both women had worked off and on for years, but had failed to connect.

“That was the best cake I ever had,” Morrison says. “After I ate it, I said, ‘I have to meet the woman who baked this cake.’”

And so the dance began. The two developed a clear affinity for one another and began spending more time together. But as both had recently gotten out of long-term relationships, they were adamant about remaining single. Still, the connection between them grew, and it became more obvious they were meant to be together.

“I remember I could hardly sleep for days. I had these really intense daydreams and night- time dreams about the future,” Morrison recounts, “which is a weird thing to think about with someone you hardly know.”

The attraction followed March on a trip to New York, her feelings growing in Morrison’s absence, and she resolved to divulge her sentiments to Morrison as soon as she returned.

“I thought, ‘I hope she’s going to be comfortable with my level of admiration for her,’” March laughs.

Soon enough, the two became a couple, though they were hesitant to admit it, telling each other, “We’re not girlfriends.” And, as if struggling to define their fledgling kinship wasn’t pressure enough, the two decided not much later that a little long-distance relationship never hurt anybody. They’d periodically see each other in New York before March took off on a road trip or Morrison returned to Austin for a while. Eventually, Morrison moved to Ithaca, N.Y., just as March was leaving the state. After months of living apart, longing for the next time they’d meet, the couple made a decision.

“The goal was to live within a hundred miles of each other,” March says. “And then in another six months, perhaps we’d live in the same city.”

It was a harrowing way to start a relationship, but one that seemed to work quite well for the women. By the time they’d landed in the same city – Austin – they were prepared to make the major life-changing commitments of buying a home together and starting a business.

Ideas Brewing

These days, Morrison jokes that she’s already had several careers in her young life. But when she graduated from high school, she had one particular career goal in mind. A move
from Houston to Los Angeles solid
ified her desire to go in to the film
 business and before long, she
 returned to Austin – a place that 
evoked fond memories of swimming in 
Barton Springs and playing in the park with 
her dad when she was a kid. She attended the
University of Texas, ultimately earning a
 master’s degree in film studies.

With the dream of becoming a film professor, Morrison headed back to L.A. after
 college and began pursuing a Ph.D. at the
 University of Southern California, studying the history and theory of the discipline and attending classes on sociological, gender and culture studies.

“I was there for about a year, but I was just miserable,” Morrison says. “I spent my spring break at the UCLA archives and I just remember being so unhappy. And then one day I just decided I was going to quit. I told one of my professors, who then said, ‘I think I’d have to shoot myself if I went back in to the real world.’ But I told myself, ‘You can make your own life. You can construct things for yourself.’ So I left.”

4Morrison remained in California for a stint, picking up some production-assistant work and temping for a while. She even worked for five days at the Creative Artists Agency, the entertainment and sports giant founded in part by Michael Ovitz that represents countless successful actors, athletes, musicians, writers and directors. But nothing seemed to stick for Morrison, so, once again, she headed back to Austin.

“When I came back from California, I promised myself that I would spend one year just doing things I enjoyed, whether I made money or not,” she says, adding that much of her time was spent floating in the pool, contemplating that age-old, mystifying question: What should I do with my life? “That was really therapeutic for me. It allowed me to really figure out what my interests were: massage, health and restaurant work.”

It may seem an odd grouping of interests, however foreshadowing of Morrison’s future. So, in addition to attaining her massage therapy license, Morrison got a management job at Eastside Cafe, the locally owned, garden-driven restaurant known for its fresh, in-season dishes and welcome hospitality. For Morrison, who had worked in restaurants off and on since the age of 14, it was like coming home. The simple act of serving people food that made them happy made her happy.

March, who had operated a holistic and massage therapy business for 10 years, had also spent her fair share of time in the restaurant industry and even dabbled in catering and personal chef work. After moving to Austin, she took a position as a tea specialist at Central Market, the ideal job for March, who was born in the Virgin Islands, lived in England, has traveled to Nepal and India, and professes a deep love for the dark, soothing beverage.

“Tea has always been an important part of my life,” says March, who inherited antique tea sets from both grandmothers in a circumstance she refers to as a “mystical legacy.” She’d also previously studied with an herbal Taoist whose brother was a tea specialist, and had become very familiar with the growing, if still limited, tea culture in the United States.

Tea for Two

On March 9, 2007, the culmination of two lifetimes’ worth of study, savings, planning and passion led to the opening of Morrison and March’s new business: The Steeping Room, a bewitching and cozy café located in The Domain serving a variety of sinfully delicious yet natural, organic and in-season foods (occasionally March’s intoxicating orange teacake appears on the menu) and, of course, tea. Lots and lots of tea.

From idea to opening, The Steeping Room took three years to become a reality. During that time, Morrison and March steeped themselves in the study of tea, taking national courses to become tea specialists in the same way wine specialists become sommeliers, building an intricately detailed business plan and tasting thousands of teas. Most teahouses get their tea from one or two tea providers, but, being the true tea enthusiasts they are, Morrison and March scoured through lists of blenders, gardens and international distributors for the perfect blends that would reflect the unique café they had become so passionate about.

The devotion has paid off; The Steeping Room, one of only a few locally owned businesses at 
The Domain, is wildly popular with
 North Austin neighborhood residents, Domain shoppers and even passersby out for a stroll along the sunny, treelined promenade. The café, which serves a brain-boggling 100 different teas, even has its own signature blends, Steeping Room morning tea and Steeping Room classic afternoon tea, one of Morrison’s favorites.

The restaurant is a simple yet elegant teahouse bathed in calming, warm colors and natural woods. Dozens of teapots and sets line wooden shelves topped with flourishing succulents, and the 16 small tables are situated just close enough together to encourage a sense of friendliness and community with fellow tea-sippers. It’s a dining sanctuary and a place of rejuvenation, a restaurant that puts customers at ease while likely exposing their palates to foods and teas they’ve never before experienced.

“There are basically two types of ideas people get about teahouses,” says Morrison. “Doilies and old ladies are on one end and there’s something very Asian on the other side. We didn’t want either of those things. We wanted something serene but inviting. I think we’ve been pretty successful in providing a place that people love.”

Everyone’s Cup of Tea

Having been a successful teahouse for nearly two years, The Steeping Room continues to become more popular with tea lovers and tea buffs, as well as those who are simply tea-curious. Even the neighboring Starbucks Coffee shop hasn’t detracted from The Steeping Room’s business.

Morrison says every day she is approached by customers asking her to open a Steeping Room location in their city or state.

“We get really excited about how much they care for us in that way, but, for now, we’ve decided on putting all our energy in to this one restaurant,” she says.

Opening another teahouse would make it more problematic for Morrison and March to adhere to their strict selection process, which involves tasting hundreds of teas every season. Besides, says March, there’s still plenty of work to be done at the existing location.

The couple is working on launching a new website that will allow tea enthusiasts the world over to purchase their blends online. The catering side of the business is growing, and The Steeping Room continues to host Tea with Terry, a twice-weekly guided tea-tasting event led by Morrison’s father. The gatherings, which Morrison and March say are part book club, part wine tasting and a great way for the restaurant to nurture a tea community, almost always reach capacity. The popularity of the events has led the couple to explore addition- al avenues in their quest to educate and enlighten the public about tea.

They plan to offer a tea-pairing menu that will change weekly, will expand their wine program and possibly offer some wine pairings, and will begin serving sake flights. In the future, they may also offer tea classes.

“We’ve even been thinking about having a service where our tea sommeliers can come to your parties or corporate lunches, that kind of thing,” Morrison says.

Whatever services and products Morrison and March add to The Steeping Room’s repertoire, they are resolute in their desire to continue providing a truly community- based teahouse and restaurant.

“We have 27 people on our staff,” says March. “This is a community and a family. It’s become what it is because of the people who work here and the people who dine here. We see everyday people from all types of backgrounds come here for the tea, and that is very rewarding for us.”

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