Ashley Hoekstra has devoted her life to setting the record straight about tea.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve been all about showing people that there’s more to tea than we know,” said Hoekstra, the owner of Cha Cha’s Tea Lounge. “We always think of tea as very English, especially in the United States. But tea has its roots in every culture. It’s very worldly. We give you the true tea experience when you come to Cha Cha’s.”
They used to, anyway. Cha Cha’s, which opened in 2018, was furloughed after wind and rain from an early August storm knocked out the Grand Avenue café’s power and ripped down a big hunk of its back wall. It seems Mother Nature isn’t a fan of oolong.
“Or something,” agreed Hoekstra, who wasn’t amused by the irony of her current situation: “We managed to make it through the pandemic shutdowns,” she sighed. “I didn’t have to lay off any of the staff, we got the Paycheck Protection money and we set up a to-go station and people came in for their tea. We survived COVID. And then this happened.”
At first, Hoekstra wasn’t worried when she discovered the damage to the building. She called APS and reported the downed power line, and a line repairman showed up at lunchtime the next day. But, “He said, ‘Hey, I can’t reconnect this power line to your building because it pulled your power box down with it, and I can’t put up a new power box until you repair the wall it took down.’”
Hoekstra is waiting for the building’s owner to arrange necessary permits to make those repairs; until that happens, her devotion to tea has no place to go. Neither, she said, do tea devotees.
“You drive up and down the streets here and it’s all coffee shops,” she carped, “where they bastardize tea. They’re not brewing it correctly. It tastes awful and it’s bad for you and eventually everyone’s going to say, ‘Never mind, I’ll just have coffee.’”
She said she worried about her customers. “We’re hearing from people every day that they miss us, and we’ve ripped out a whole part of their day. We had become a part of their routine, a deeper ritual than morning coffee, something that was actually healthier for them. They need what we bring, which is a more, I don’t know, Zen version of caffeine, I guess.”
Hoekstra was concerned about tea fans maybe backsliding. Unable to get a proper cup of masala chai with milk, her tea crowd might return to Starbucks.
“I brought Phoenix a real tea experience,” she said. “You could come in and get tea from pretty much every tea-drinking country — classic English tea, Chinese-style tea, Japanese ceremonial-style matcha green tea. Eventually, everyone’s doctor is going to tell them to switch from coffee to tea, and we need to have our doors open for them when that happens.”
She went on: “This is what goes through my mind as we get farther away from being open all the time: People who drink tea are moving into the dorms downtown. We’re losing the college tea routine people. And what about those people who thought they didn’t like tea, and we brought them around? What if they forget what good tea meant to them, while we’re closed?”
There was no telling. Hoekstra had no idea how soon she might again be throwing open Cha Cha’s doors.
“I had a really unprofessional phone call with the property manager the other day,” she said. “He keeps telling us he’s going to start work on the building soon, but then it doesn’t happen. It’s disappointing. We have a staff of 10 people waiting on him.”
Meanwhile, other Grand Avenue businesses are displaying largesse. The pizza parlor up the street has offered Hoekstra temporary space. So did a neighborhood bar. It’s been sort of humbling, Hoekstra admitted.
“I began to wonder if I would have done the same,” she said. “Would it have occurred to me to reach out that way?”
Probably. Tea people tended to be kind, Hoekstra said. Plus they served tea.
“That’s why Cha Cha’s has been such a huge force in downtown Phoenix,” she said. “And now what we’re doing is not serving tea to people, which doesn’t really make any sense.”