Far Leaves is a treasure in Berkeley, CA. A place to enjoy a pot of luxurious teas from Asia or simply buy a canister to take home -- Far Leaves is an oasis of calm, nestled on a busy, industrial section of San Pablo. I always look forward to visiting for a cup of tea with the proprieter, Donna Lo; it brings me joy and dare I say, some peace. When it is time to leave, I always wish I lived closer so I could pop in more often.
Donna is a pioneer in the tea importing industry, primarily focusing on teas from China and Taiwan. Yoko and I first started carrying her teas a couple years ago at Umami Mart and are excited to launch our first collaborative line of Japan-inspired teas with Far Leaves this week. She is always so welcoming and animated, and I love talking to her about her varied experiences in business as well as her travels. Here's a special interview with Donna about how she started Far Leaves, the struggles she faced, and her business and tea-blending philosophies. We could all take a page from the book of Donna Lo of how to enjoy life to its fullest, with an open mind and generosity.
When did you open Far Leaves tea?
Did you produce your product first, then open the tea room or do both at the same time?
First we found the space and filled it with teas that we hand-carried from China and Taiwan. We opened the shop with a grocery permit and worked for nearly a year to get a proper permit for a tea shop and then began serving tea.
Can you give me a brief history of the shop?
The shop started as an idea to help people enjoy a higher quality of life through tea.
It continues as a place where people come and go; adding their ideas to the mix along the way, and then hopefully taking a little of Far Leaves with them when they move on. For the core group that has been here the whole time, we are like family and Far Leaves does what it can to support everyone's creativity.
How did you get into the world of tea? Do you have a background in the culinary world?
Other than growing up in Taipei, I did not start with a culinary background. Food is very important in Chinese culture and Taipei has many great sources of food.
I chose tea and family over all else and have been learning how to prepare food and drink ever since.
How did you learn to become a purveyor? Did you have a mentor?
In order to be able to buy tea, one must drink lots of tea. When we first opened on College Avenue, Alfred Peet (founder of Peet's Coffee) came into the store and we talked about tea. He said tea was his real beverage preference but that coffee sold better. He also said the secret to training the palate is to taste as many different teas, as often as possible. In my travels both local and abroad, I have followed that advice and have tasted many teas.
Over the years I have also met and become friends with other chefs and food artisans. I tried to learn their tricks and experimented to develop my own style of cooking and tea blending.
So, I have learned from many people, and my training comes from 18 years of travel and being open to new ideas from everywhere.
How many people do you manage? What do you think is the best trait to have to lead a team? How do you inspire them?
We always have around three to five staff on schedule. I select most staff from our customers. Having interests in tea is important to us. We have a pretty cozy environment. It's more like a family.
I encourage the staff to run the store like they are the owner and they have the authority to make decisions regarding operations.
Can you tell me more about why you chose shiso as one of the main ingredients in our collaborative “Ohayo” blend? How about the other ingredients? What was the thought process/inspiration (you mentioned ochazuke - tea soaked rice) behind that?
I chose shiso as the theme for Umami Mart because it is an unique ingredient for Japanese cooking. Umeboshi (shiso pickled plum) is everywhere in daily life. The most popular one is on rice. That's why I blend in some brown rice. In order to add more umami, I throw in some ground shiitake mushroom. I hope this tea is a liquid form of the pickled plum rice.
How does this reflect your philosophy regarding tea-blending in general?
No artificial ingredients and as little processing as possible. I like real stuff and try to balance all the natural ingredients into a pleasant taste.
How do you start your day in the morning?
How do you end your day in the evening?
Ideally falling asleep while I reading.
We are celebrating women producers this month at Umami Mart. Who is a role model you have who is also a female (they can be a relative, someone famous, someone from a different industry)? Why?
I was told that all the beggars knew where the back door was at my grandma's house because she gave away food to whomever passed by.
I try to spread my grandma's spirit to serve a cup of tea to whomever walks into the tea shop. I am fortunate to be able to practice random kindness all the time.
How do you think women are making a difference in the tea industry?
Traditionally females are the tea pickers or in lower level production, whereas men have consumed the teas and decided on the flavors.
When I first started to buy tea in Asia, no one even wanted to talk to me. The tea guy would "remind me" that the tea I picked was not quite standard type.
Now, after almost 20 years, finally the tea guys will drink tea with me and listen to my opinions.
Also, I am seeing more women in China in sales and management roles. Personally, I have been working closely with a solid woman partner in Shanghai for years.
In Taiwan, it was a woman who came up with the idea of Bubble Tea, which is possibly the biggest innovation in tea since the teabag.