Profiles in Tea: Virginia (“Cinnabar”) Wright – a.k.a. Gongfu Girl

What does it take to open a tea shop, especially in a down economy? You’ll need good planning, in-depth tea knowledge, an enduring dream, and perhaps a little madness. Which describes Virginia Wright, proprietor of Phoenix Tea in Burien, Washington, to a “tea.”

How did you get involved with tea?

I’ve always been interested in the culinary traditions of different places, including tea. In 2005 I fell headlong into Chinese gongfu cha, which encompasses skill and concentration, and began to write about what I was learning. Around that time, a friend started the Gongfu Girl blog and invited me to contribute. Eventually the other writers fell away and the blog became a reflection of my tea personality, and led to other tea writing opportunities.

Why did you decide to open a retail shop, and what have been the challenges?

Phoenix Tea started in 2010 as an online-only store. There was little risk as I built all of the business elements myself and maintained only a small inventory. My dream, however, was to create a physical space where I could interact with people around a tea table. I knew I would not be able to run the business single-handedly, and was fortunate last summer to partner with Brett Boynton, whose nine-plus years in the tea industry are helping take the business to the next level.

Right now I’m keeping my full-time job as a computer professional, which allows me to stock special teas and tea wares that the business couldn’t have afforded by itself at this stage of development. We continue to grow our local customer base, and we’re starting to see the kind of security that we need the business to have. We’re most gratified by the support we’ve received from the surrounding tea community.

What advice you would give to someone who wants to open a tea business?

The most important thing is to clearly define your business’ direction and “personality.” If you create a business that is too generic and offers nothing distinctive, there’s not going to be any reason for people to purchase from you rather than from someone else. Each tea business needs its own identity and to be able to clearly communicate what it is and is not. Anyone entering into a tea business must become as knowledgeable about tea and the tea industry as possible. Passion will help, but knowledge and authority will be what brings customers back to you.

What changes have you seen in the tea community? What do you predict for the future?

The biggest change is the enormous growth in connections made possible through the Internet. I’ve met many wonderful tea people whom I would never have known if I could not connect with them online. There has been a parallel increase in the availability of information, resulting in an educated tea-drinking public. The future will bring more attention to emerging and lesser-known origins of high quality specialty teas. Places like Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, and Korea will see broader distribution and recognition in the next few years.

What is the significance of your screen name “Cinnabar”?

When I started writing for Gongfu Girl I didn’t want to use my real name. I have a strong attraction to a number of elements associated with cinnabar: the color red, mercury (the oxide it’s made from), Chinese jewelry, and other art forms. I liked it as a word and a concept so I adopted it as my online name for everything associated with tea. It’s taken a little getting used to being called “Cinnabar” in person, but I would rather use the name that tea people associate with me.

What is your favourite tea, and how do you prefer to steep and drink it?

I enjoy each of the major tea families for their own distinctive characteristics. If it’s high-quality tea without additional stuff added, I will appreciate drinking it. My preferred brewing methods are whichever accoutrements come from the culture of the particular tea itself. But the method I use most often is a porcelain gaiwan – it’s such a flexible and well-designed way to brew tea.

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