I have been avoiding e-mail, phone calls and even in-person visits because I know the question I will be asked is, “When are you opening?” I have wanted to know the answer to this myself for many months, but I haven’t been able to predict it because of so many unknown variables. Things are finally starting to change, and the time has come where we feel comfortable setting a soft opening date for Monday, October 22. I’m calling it a soft opening because I’m only notifying my friends, family and Lovescool readers about the date, not the general media. We still want a couple weeks to work out the kinks before we have our “grand” opening, although any opening feels grand to me.
I was originally hoping to open in August, so we are about 2-3 months behind schedule. In the New York City food world this doesn’t seem like much time, but it has added a great deal of stress since we still have to pay for rent, insurance and many other miscellaneous expenses. I believe the delay is primarily because things just take so much longer than I expect, and Andrew and I have virtually no experience opening a retail shop. Everything from finishing construction to finding the cups for tea took about 3 times longer than I planned for. There is so much to decide that it takes a long time to wrap my head around what needs to be done and get things right.
The other major reason for the delay in opening is an array of technical difficulties. If I could do it over again I would invest more money in new equipment. I bought most of my equipment used from a restaurant supply store on Bowery in Manhattan. The shop was referred to me by two separate small business owners that I trust. Unfortunately, things seem to have changed at this shop and they provided terrible equipment with incompetent service. This shop gave me 2 broken dishwashers, 2 broken refrigerators and an oven that caught fire. Replacing these items has taken over 2 months, and I’m still not done. We did get a new Blodgett Mark V oven, but I can’t use it yet. It is currently acting as a very expensive shelf in the kitchen. The new oven they gave me has a control panel that is configured to only work for preset fast food cooking, and I have to replace the automatic electronic panel with a manual control to override it. All I want to do is turn the oven on, set a temperature and leave it on until I’m done baking, and this oven can’t do that. I had no idea this was even possible from an oven, but unfortunately, it is. Luckily we have a back-up oven on the ground floor that we can use in the meantime. We have also had five visits from the refrigerator repairman and we still haven’t been able to get one of our refrigerators to hold at 40 degrees or below. I think we got the final fix today, but it will be another 24 hours before I’m comfortable that the problem is really solved.
Aside from the technical difficulties, I am very happy with the way things are going. The store looks beautiful, the products taste great, and the people I have been working with are the best I could ever ask for.
Andrew has been working hard on designing, and then building, the store. Our contractor, Full Circle Construction, did the major electrical, plumbing and structural work, but Andrew did almost all of the rest. He tore down walls, built our display cases, installed our sound system, and just about everything else. It was his vision that really led the design of the store. He chose colors and materials that are meant to fall to the background and let the products and people in front of it shine. There is a lot of grey, black and beige, along with stone and wood materials. I like to think of it like a cave, where it’s calm, cool and inviting.
View from behind the counter.
One of our chairs next to the product shelf.
Wallpaper and sconce in the back seating area.
It has taken a long time to finish since the store was in bad shape when we got it, but the main man over at Full Circle Construction, Lop, and his office have been a pleasure to work with. Our great friends and family have also helped us paint, assemble, and get everything to the point it’s at today. It will soon be time to return those favors with large amounts of tea and sweets. Lop now stops by the store and demands donuts as payback for all of his work. I owe him much more than a donut for all of the extras he’s done for us, but for now he’ll have to settle for a Matcha scone or go down to Dunkin’ Donuts for a fix.
Queenie, our new sales manager, and Sara, our new head baker, have also been at the store every day for the past month helping Andrew and I get the store ready. Queenie comes from a culinary and tea background and has a vast amount of knowledge to add to Amai. She keeps me organized with color-coded file folders, Excel spreadsheets, and lots of cleaning. Her sense of humor (and knack for singing commercial jingles) also cracks me up and keeps the day moving quickly.
Lara, the wonderful baker I have been working with for the past year, decided to pursue her personal training career full-time, so I went on a search for a new baker to help me at the store. I met Sara through mutual friends, and she is the perfect seasonal-fruit loving, detail oriented, passionate chef I was looking for. She has already added delicious creations to the menu like Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, Dyson Chocolate Chip Cookies (with 99%, 70% and 54% chocolate and nibs), Sweet Potato Conversation Tarts, Matcha Scones, Lavender Butter, Honey Butter, and much more. We also have a strong team of baking assistants, baristas and cleaning crew assembled that make this place run as best as it can under this novice bakery owner, and I feel very lucky.
Our teas and products are already up on the shelf, and our coffee comes in next week. Queenie helped me choose approximately 40 loose leaf teas to start with, and we’ll be growing our menu over the next few months. For tea, we chose to work with wide range of vendors, each with their own specialty. For example, most of our Japanese tea comes from Ito-En, classic teas from Red & Green Company, Serendipitea and Tao of Tea, modern mixes from Art of Tea and Tavalon, tea bags from Two Leaves and a Bud, etc.
We’ll also be serving coffee from Counter Culture Coffee, a company “dedicated to fair, democratic principles, sustainable agriculture, and the cultivation of the highest quality coffees imaginable”. Many tea purists may wonder why we’ll be serving coffee in the store, but for me it was an easy decision. I believe Counter Culture Coffee says it best on their website by describing coffee as “a connective force that has the potential to bring out the best in people.” I believe coffee, tea and sweets all have this effect, making them a natural offering together in the store. Coffee will never be our main focus, but we still want to offer a quality variety.
Next week we’ll be doing staff training and finishing the details of the menu. Barring any unforseen catastrophe, we will be open on October 22. I hope to see you there!
Amai Tea & Bake House
Opening Monday, October 22, 2007
171 3rd Avenue (between 16th and 17th Street)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 863-9630 phone
Monday – Thursday: 7am to 7pm
Friday: 7am to 9pm
Saturday: 9am to 9pm
Sunday: 9am to 7pm