BY CHELSEA VAN ZEE
The stylish little teashop, Gong Fu Tea, opened in June of 2004 in Des Moines’ East Village.
The teashop looks retro-esque in its appearance, like a storefront seen in a 1960’s movie set.
Inside, it’s a whole different appearance. There isn’t an overpowering smell — it’s a relaxing environment with subtle scents of tea leaves.
Drake first-year Emily Larson visited the teashop last month.
“I came to the tea shop out of interest,” Larson said. “It’s a very calm, chill atmosphere … nice lighting and soothing music playing.”
Owner Mike Feller has loved tea since college and wanted to open up his own tea-specific business.
“(Opening a tea shop has) been an interest of mine for many, many years,” Feller said. “There weren’t that many tea shops in the U.S., let alone the Des Moines/Midwest area. I want others to enjoy high quality tea.”
The tea can be purchased as loose-leaf teas to take home and make or can be bought to-go or in a cup for the customer to sit with in the shop.
Since their opening, Gong Fu Tea has expanded it’s marketing, creating a website and started shipping their tea nationwide.
“The volume of business has changed,” Feller said. “We are seeing more customers and we have a website that you can purchase our teas from.”
Mike used to travel to meet the tea growers when the store first opened up. One of his favorite places to visit is China. He described it as very interesting, saying that the tea history in China as extensive and very fascinating.
He no longer travels as often as he once did, but some of the main brewing locations are in India, China, Nepal and Taiwan.
The store does not blend it’s own teas. All of that is done before the tea is sent to them at the store. Gong Fu Tea gets samples of blended teas, and from there the staff picks what flavors to order in bulk..
Feller is a graduate of Iowa State University and was a forester for 13 years. His business partner was in insurance and banking. They met at college and both shared an interest in loose-leaf tea.
They decided to start this business together and had a short list of locations for placing the store.
Des Moines was the place for them, the store, and it has been a good fit ever since.
“Gong Fu is the art of mastering tea making. It is a very ancient tea ceremony in China,” Feller said. “We wanted to keep the purity of a true tea shop.”
Feller and his employees are fond of tea. Feller tried to drink coffee in college, but decided it made him too tired and has been an avid tea drinker since.
The staff is friendly and eager to give customers as much information as they can about tea flavors, the purchasing process or the process of brewing it. Staff members George Taylor and Mary Ryan are both knowledgeable and passionate about tea, as is Feller.
“Since I don’t always know each person’s taste preference, we suggest they try Ancient Happiness, which is a green tea base,” Feller said. “It’s exotic but not overly flavored.”
When the store first opened, it served 108 teas and have built up to 150.
The teas line the wall behind the register and the employees must memorize the spots they are in because they are not alphabetically placed.
On the wall parallel to the containers is a wall of tealeaves that customers can smell to get a general idea of what some of the teas will taste like. Most of the teas will taste strong if their smell is strong and vice versa.
Green tea is full of antioxidants, so it is a very healthy choice, Feller said. White tea should steep for two minutes: the darker the tea the longer the steep time is. Anywhere from two to five minutes is good for steeping teas.
The store sells a 2 oz. bag of tea for around four dollars. A 2 oz. bag makes about 25 – 30 cups of tea.
Prices vary on the amount and the quality of the teas themselves.