The Journey Of Reginald Quarles, Founder Of Teatopia In St. Louis
In under three minutes, Reginald Quarles, 28, can offer up a tutorial on tea that will leave you both stunned and feeling like a refined tea enthusiast. In January 2017, he opened Teatopia in a small corridor located at 2619 Cherokee Street beginning with 40 teas, and within 10 months relocated across the street to to a larger location at 2606. The new location offers additional seating for customers, more than 70 different teas, and space to host upcoming yoga sessions, open-mic events and youth programming he hopes to offer. Below Quarles discusses his aim to make tea more accessible to the St. Louis community and the importance of cultivating peace in our lives.
How did you come up with the idea for Teatopia?
That’s a tough question. I knew for a long time that I wanted my own business. Prior to starting Teatopia I worked for a mental-health insurance company, working for the critical incident team. If there was a homicide, suicide, layoffs, or anything across that spectrum in the entire U.S., it was my job to find counselors to address it. The job wasn’t hard itself—I’m pretty resilient. It was hard working with people who were complacent and fine with where they were. I knew I didn’t want to pass away with my legacy stuck in a cubicle with fluorescent lights. So, in June of last year I took the leap and walked out in the middle of the day. I panicked a little bit—this is the part people won’t tell you about. You don’t have that consistent check coming in, and you don’t have that health insurance coverage anymore. About a month later, I took a trip to New York and spent a few months there. I kind of lost track of time. I followed this guy around in Chinatown to what I call “secret tearooms,” because no one knows about them and they’re easy to miss. That’s where I did most of my research. Then, I came back here, got my plan together to make it more concrete, and opened in January 2017.
When you went to New York, did you go with intention of finding these secret tearooms?
Yes. It had been a couple of years in the making. I just hadn’t taken concrete steps toward it. I always knew that I wanted to have my own business, and I wanted it to include tea in some way. I’m vegan, so the idea that Earth provides everything that we need to sustain ourselves, that comes from tea. I’m also really into philosophy and spirituality that ties in with tea. I needed a place where all those things could come together.
What did you do before working at the insurance company?
I went to school for psychology. My mom passed away shortly before I decided to quit my job. She was killed in a car accident on the way to work one morning. I had this spiritual life spectrum: you either live for it and do what you want to do, or you die. And I wanted to leave a legacy—something that lives on past me. In addition to losing my mom, I’ve also lost my dad and my older brother, so my immediate family is just my younger brother and me. He has two kids. I don’t have any. This was my baby.
I want to build something for myself, but also for him and his kids. We have a tagline: “Brewing better lives one leaf at a time.” We encounter so much negativity on a day-to-day basis and we needed somewhere that was like a safe haven, somewhere that can counter all the negativity in life. That’s why everything is so zen and peaceful here. That’s my personality, too, because I’m an introvert. I’m all about peace and helping to uplift others.
Are you originally from St. Louis?
What encouraged your expansion to this location?
The very first plan was to be in a bigger space. I looked at about 30 places before I found our first spot at 2619 Cherokee. I actually found that place by mistake, because I’d actually come for a poetry reading at 2720 Cherokee and saw that the place was available. I just had a feeling—like a connection, almost. I called the property owners the next day, secured everything and took it over.
My plan from there was to expand after about a year. It’s been going pretty well, so I was able to do it a little sooner. I’m glad that the community loves it. It’s not a traditional tearoom. It’s not the old Victorian and old Asian setup, as you can see. That was intentional also—not only to have a higher impact on the zen, but because I think those type of places turn a lot people away. And Cherokee Street is the perfect place to have a nontraditional tearoom. I think those places make it hard for people to be themselves. Traditionally tea has been associated with the upper class, but I feel like tea should be available for everyone.
Tell me about your teas. I see you keep them in canisters. I remember when you were across the street and doing taste tests. How are you sourcing it?
It is a little difficult because I keep finding things that I like. The list is growing tremendously. My apartment is a mess because there’s tea packages everywhere. I source from the east coast, and a little from the west coast. I’m looking at some in the U.K. also, working with direct tea plantations. There’s a huge language barrier. I’m working on trying to increase those relationships, also. With over 70 different teas, we have everything from the purest green teas to chai and reds.
How did the name “Teatopia” come about? Did you have multiple contenders for the name?
I knew I wanted a unique, amazing name. I wanted something that focused on a part of it being peaceful, and the word “utopia” came to me. I just put them together. And the mission statement, “Brewing better lives one leaf at a time,” immediately came to me after I had the name. It wasn’t a huge moment of enlightenment or anything. It just happened.
Do you have any plans to do events here?
We’re working on that, too. I want to get something for the kids, especially since the weather’s changing, so they can have somewhere to go. I want to get some yoga in here in the morning to get people going. And I’ve never done poetry, but I think poetry would be really awesome in this space as well.
Ultimately, I just want to keep getting better. I push myself really hard. I’m zen and relaxed, but I’m also super hard on myself. I definitely want the business to grow and get better. I think the peace we offer here is something that everyone needs.
Photography by Marcus Stabenow