Fresh Cup Tea Almanac 2014
In the spring of 2005, Lisa Biro readied for personal and professional change.
Tiring of her 9-to-5 job at the University of Denver and longing for more creative pursuits, Biro ditched academia for entrepreneurship. Spending the next year brainstorming and researching, she found herself consistently returning to one particular love: tea.
A former European resident well versed on tea’s global standing, Biro had witnessed the swelling interest in tea and thought Denver would welcome a more contemporary concept. "Denver had some tea shops," she says, "but they were largely hit or miss—little shops that weren’t current or relevant. They were Victorian and lacey." Biro envisioned a shop more modern and comfortable, pairing a fresh spirit with superior teas and treats. Thus began the tale of Capital Tea, a now seven-year-old outlet that has earned a loyal following for its expanding selection of teas, fresh-baked goods and customer-first environment. "Above all, I want to be consistent because that’s what keeps people coming back," Biro says.
Since its opening in August 2006, Capital Tea has become a destination spot for tea lovers in and around the Mile High City and the shop’s increasingly hip South Broadway (SoBo) neighborhood. Editors at 5280 Magazine, Denver’s preeminent arts and culture magazine, named Capital Tea the city’s "Best Teahouse" in 2012, a clear nod to the shop’s quality and character. "We don’t mimic anything in town," Biro says.
The rise of Capital Tea, of course, has not happened by accident. Biro has made—and continues to make—strategic decisions that appease customers and boost results. In building out the shop, for example, Biro invested in a small kitchen to churn out handmade baked goods, soups, salads and sandwiches utilizing seasonal and organic ingredients. Not only does the food provide an additional revenue stream to the shop’s bulk and brewed tea sales, but it also sparks higher checks and longer stays. "I wanted the tea and food to work hand in hand together," says Biro, who has since expanded her food menu with heralded customer favorites like carrot cake with fresh Colorado peaches, ginger lemon cookies and coconut macaroons.
Eager to bypass tea’s traditional feel and create a differentiated concept, Biro fashioned a more relaxed environment rejecting anything old-fashioned or British. She ditched afternoon and high-tea servings and employed elements including jazz music, square white plates, fresh flowers and a modern green sectional couch to deliver a cozy setting that invites people to "feel better when they left than when they came in."
Biro proudly touts Capital Tea as "Certified Man Friendly," an imaginative label that has succeeded in breaking traditional barriers and enticed men into the shop for a cup of Darjeeling or oolong. They come, Biro says, with their laptops or newspapers, to enjoy a cup of tea while reading up on the Denver Broncos or the Dow Jones.
Biro adds that she could just as easily tab Capital Tea "Certified Kid Friendly," too. The store features a children’s area that includes a tot-sized table-and-chair set, coloring books and crayons.
Make no mistake, though—Biro’s shop embraces an earnest, laser-like focus on tea. Since opening, Capital Tea has nearly doubled its tea inventory from 45 to 85 options, always mindful of customer favorites such as Lavender Earl Grey, Coconut Vanilla Black Tea and Tangerine Green Tea. Biro says the shop will soon add an additional 20 teas and surpass 100 varieties. "We look at what sells and what customers want," she says. "It’s not about my preferences, but my guests’. Any successful owner has to be agile and move with the customers."
That does not, however, mean granting every customer demand or request. For example, Biro says she has declined repeated overtures to sell coffee because that’s not in Capital Tea’s DNA. "We keep our focus specific and stay true to that," she says.
It has all created a winning formula at Capital Tea, where Biro says the 2012 sales were double the revenue she collected in her first full year of operation in 2007. "That’s satisfying given the recession we went through and the fact that tea is still playing catch-up to coffee and beer in Denver," she says.
But the positive results haven’t spawned complacency. This past fall, Biro decided to rebrand her shop with a younger look. She replaced the shop’s elegant yet understated sunburst emblem with a more colorful logo featuring a tea leaf. It was, she acknowledges, an investment made to change with the times. "Just because the shop is getting older, our customer base is not," she says.
Now, more than seven years after opening Capital Tea, Biro says her passion for tea has only intensified. "It’s that love of tea that gets me through the hiccups we face as a business," she says.
Though Biro is not working in the store as much as she did in its earliest years, she continues snubbing franchise suggestions or any thoughts of turning the store over to managers so she can kick back and enjoy the profits. "My interest has always been in the tea, and I want to be here," she says. "Plus, I don’t think a tea shop works as well when it gets too big or the owner removes herself from the scene."
So Biro plans to remain in the store, staying involved and dialed into her staff, customers and product. That, she stands convinced, resides at the core of Capital Tea. "When we talk about tea we’re enthusiastic, and that starts a relationship with people," Biro says. "It reaffirms why I started Capital Tea in the first place: to do something creative and to connect with people on a more genuine level."