Tucsonan serves tea on wheels

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Shane Barela tweaks with the Teas on Tap that will be featured on the Scented Leaf golf cart. Photo by: Kalli Ricka Wolf / Arizona Sonora News

Shane Barela is bringing tea to the masses. Via golf cart.

As owner of Scented Leaf Tea House & Lounge in Tucson, Barela has designed a mobile cart to sell six teas on tap. Starting this fall, the golf cart will be outfitted with a solar-powered ice machine, pastries, and speakers blasting alternative rock.

“If the concept works and people respond to it well, it will find its home somewhere,” Barela said.

Barela’s tea journey actually started with perfume. In 2010, Barela opened a perfumery near the University of Arizona campus. Demand was low, so he decided to take his business in a new direction.

While on a trip to Spain with his then-fiancée, Barela stumbled upon a small boutique with loose leaf tea on display. Intrigued, he spoke with the owner and learned about the benefits of loose leaf versus Westernized bagged tea. It was then that he realized what his business needed: an organic, healthy product.

When he returned to Tucson, he turned “University Perfumes” into “The Scented Leaf Fine Teas and Fragrances” and then moved to his current, larger location three years ago.

In the beginning, Barela was skeptical of what college students would think of tea. Now lines of customers wind out the front door.

When Barela introduced a new idea, “teas on tap,” his employees were doubtful. Now the store features 12 taps that pour similar to beer.

“In my mind, it was always — I won’t know until I try it,” Barela said. “A lot of people thought it was too risky.”

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Scented Leaf’s new mobile tea service will hit Tucson streets this fall. Photo by: Kalli Ricka Wolf / Arizona Sonora News

Barela hired someone to brainstorm new marketing strategies for his business, but says he was uninspired by their ordinary ideas. While driving home from a vacation in California, Barela and his wife dreamed up a new concept: mobile tea.

After sitting on the idea for several months, he began researching possibilities. He designed his own concepts, purchased a golf cart, applied for a license similar to food trucks, and built his store on wheels.

The cart premiered at his son’s fourth birthday party in a Tucson park in April. It still needs a couple tweaks and fine tuning, says Barela, but will be ready for the road starting this fall.

The flowing taps will include high-demand iced teas like Moroccan Mint, Green Tea Mango and Chai, and hot tea will also be available upon request. Sweeteners and milks will be on board to make staples, like Barela’s favorite, “The Shane:” Papaya Passion, Yerba Mate, and freshly squeezed lemon.

“We do very well with young, bright people who are healthy and health conscious,” Barela said. “Thoughtful, progressive people.”

Lisa Li, an optical sciences senior at the UA, grew up with traditional tea from Taiwan and is now a regular at Scented Leaf.

“There were different chamomile teas and really, really nice green and black teas. I just knew that it would taste delicious, and I can tell if the tea leaves aren’t quite up to par,” said Li, who estimates she spends about 20 hours at the tea house any given week.

“They always want something new, something fresh,” said Barela. “You always have the option of getting something different every time you walk in this place.”

However, tea is nothing new. Historically, tea has been medicinal, spiritual, social, and the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. The five basic tea categories – black, green, white, oolong, and pu’erh – all stem from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis.

Somehow, the act of pouring water through leaves has become a mainstream beverage in the West, said Olivia Wingert from Souvia Tea in Phoenix.

“Tea stores are popping up as people are exposed to a better quality of tea,” said Wingert. “You can create your own concoctions as a health conscious, quality driven consumer.”

Customers often seek out high quality tea for medicinal purposes, says Wingert.

“I see a lot of people come in who have health issues, whose doctors told them to stop drinking coffee,” Wingert said. “Tea is a healthy beverage and always has been. It’s another herb that you use to promote and maintain health.”

Whether or not the average customer knows the health benefits, Barela says he wants them to feel empowered about making the decision to choose tea.

“I drink tea because it makes me feel more mindful,” Barela said. “It makes me feel more focused, alert, and ready to handle more problems.”

Kalli Ricka Wolf is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at krickaw@email.arizona.edu.

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