Sunni Gilliam does, in fact, know how to read the tea leaves.
In late 2005, when a Starbucks seemed to be popping up on every block, Gilliam opened Tea-ology, an "urban tea house" in Fells Point. The name was soon changed to Teavolve, and a few years later, she opened another, larger Teavolve in an up-and-coming area called Harbor East.
"We were here before Legg Mason. We were here before Four Seasons. We were here before Chazz," Gilliam said.
Now, Gilliam and her fiance, Del Powell, plan to open a new Teavolve in the Hopkins BioPark in the next two months. Gilliam, 47, has gentle eyes and an easy smile.
The Teavolve in Harbor East, which turns five this summer, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and hosts live music three nights a week. Gilliam grudgingly serves coffee there too.
"You can't open at 8 in the morning without coffee," Gilliam said with a laugh. "But tea is still in the forefront."
What made you go for tea instead of coffee?
I was on a — I don't know if you would call it a bender — but when I first started in the restaurant industry, I was drinking lattes with triple and quadruple shots of espresso. It was affecting my digestion, and my doctor said, "You have to ease up on the coffee. Why don't you try tea?" ...
The restaurant I managed in Philadelphia had a great tea program. I met the tea vendor for the restaurant. She's now my tea mentor. She has 300-plus teas in stock. I had no idea there were so many teas, and she only carries a small percentage.
When was the last time you had a cup of coffee?
Ohhh. Three days ago. Monday? Monday.
Are you 90 percent tea?
I would say I'm 98 percent tea and 2 percent coffee. It keeps me away from the desserts. [Laughs] It's a treat. Just a small cup, and I don't even finish it.
Would you consider yourself at least part hippie?
I do — In fact, my sister called me a hippie the other day. I'm a lot of hippie.
In what ways?
I try to do all natural products — cleaning, health, eating clean. I try not to buy conventional items. If I didn't live in a city, I would definitely be growing my own food. I try to work on balance as much as possible. I try to do that with a lot of yoga.
What do you think of Starbucks?
Oh I think they're a great brand. When I was running my business plan, I did a lot of research on Starbucks. I'm amazed at how they started and what they've grown into. It helps us a lot, because they were the ones that made the $4 coffee drink acceptable.
Do you think America has a coffee problem?
I wouldn't say it's a problem. Coffee will always be in the forefront versus tea. We are so fast paced. We're required to constantly be in motion. Coffee is that tool that helps a lot of people do that. If I want that extra push, I prefer a yerba mate, because it's a little more forgiving to the body.
Five years ago, if you'd told most people you were opening a tea house this large in Harbor East, they would have laughed at you.
I would have laughed at me. When we decided on this location, I was very nervous for that reason. How could the Fells Point location translate into someplace this large? This is almost three times bigger. Luckily we brought our original customers over and then made new friends.
What do you think of Baltimore's music scene?
Since I'm not able to go out and listen to music, I bring music to me. There's a lot of great talent out there. … Nelly's Echo plays here a lot. He was just on "The Voice." You see these performers come in here, and you say, "They're going to make it big."
Where did you come up with the idea for Teavolve?
Del and I were at a bed and breakfast in central New Jersey, and we were looking at different coffee shops. At the time I had a business plan for a coffee house just sitting on the shelf. I was joking in this one particular shop about opening a coffee shop. This town was called Englishtown. The shop owner overheard me, and said, "Everybody has a coffee house. Why don't you do a tea house?"
When I think of tea house, I think Victorian doilies, formal tea sets, old ladies. That just stuck in my mind. I thought I'd do a contemporary or urban tea house. I started doing research. At that time there were maybe a handful of urban tea houses in the country — mostly on the West Coast. Not a lot. I had enough information to get the mind going, and create our own brand.
Have you ever sent that Englishtown woman a royalty check?
I can't find her. [Laughs] I would love to speak with her. Maybe we'll have a chance to go up to Englishtown soon. That would be great.