Time for tea

Gabriel Piamenta, a 12th-generation Jerusalemite who lived in northern Israel for most of his youth, was virtually a tea novice when he opened the store in this downtown locale in 2012.

A spot of tea and a slice of blackberry-flavored pâté de fruit (photo credit: Courtesy)
A spot of tea and a slice of blackberry-flavored pâté de fruit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The pavement was still damp from the earlier rain, as customers entered the Halitatea Tea House on a cold Saturday evening recently.
Steam from pots of tea placed on the bar counter wafted into the air, and staff scurried back and forth to serve customers, who sat in pairs and small groups at tables around the intimately sized room. A raspy Billie Holiday provided a mellow background tune, lamenting as always about lost lovers and cold, lonely nights.
Gabriel Piamenta, a 12th-generation Jerusalemite who lived in northern Israel for most of his youth, was virtually a tea novice when he opened the store in this downtown locale in 2012.
“I was in my first year of an MBA a few years ago, and on track for a career in strategic consulting, when it suddenly dawned on me that the path I was on wasn’t going to make me happy,” explains the 29-year-old father of one.
Uncertain what it was that he was looking for, Piamenta took the advice of a friend, who suggested he open a teahouse.
“As a consultant, I would have advised myself that opening a teahouse is a terrible idea,” he jokes.
Housed in a small building in an alley on Hillel Street that is hidden to passersby, the establishment serves an extensive range of 300 teas from around the world, including China, Sri Lanka, Japan and Germany. Piamenta categorizes the teahouse’s specialties in a way similar to whiskey: vintage tea (like single malt), such as Darjeeling, that comes from one flush and one location, and blended varieties that are engineered from a range of flavors, such as his house chai teas. He works on recipes for these prototypes in the store and then sends the order overseas to be manufactured.
The teahouse also has a full food menu as well as a line of desserts made in-house, including a delectable blackberry- flavored pâte de fruit, a chewy French candy coated with sugar.
Piamenta seats himself at a table next to a bookshelf display where a range of teapots and wooden tea boards are stored haphazardly. Here, he describes his business vision and talks about the daunting Jerusalem business landscape, where friends and fellow business owners have been closing their downtown stores at an alarming rate in recent months.
“Business owners in downtown Jerusalem are fighting for survival. It is really hard to see bars and restaurants, including historic mainstays of the Jerusalem leisure scene, close. There simply aren’t enough people coming.”
But he also views this as a long-term problem, where the high cost of living and lack of employment opportunities drive university graduates out of the city, directly impacting local business.
“For business owners, this poses a huge problem. We are trying to create lifelong customers, but students leave and we are forced to start again.”
While he is fortunate to have loyal customers who even come from Tel Aviv to purchase his teas, he would love to see talented young adults stay in the city. “Such quality people study here and then move to the center of the country. I would love to see these people stay.”
Every once in a while Piamenta rises, apologetically, to assist his staff, returning to the table after a few minutes to continue where he left off and drink some Pu-erh tea, an aged black tea with saffron, cardamom and sunflower seeds. “The idea behind the business is to create a unique experience and generate a culture of tea drinking in Israel.”
Piamenta recalls a conversation held with a European teahouse owner who compared quality tea to a Mercedes- Benz, a luxury item unattainable to most. “I disagree with that approach. I think that tea is like quality chocolate; once in a while we can indulge ourselves with something a little more expensive.”
Prices at the teahouse range from NIS 16 to NIS 95 for a pot of tea. At the higher end is matcha, a premium Japanese tea that he purchases for around NIS 10,000 a kilo. He also has a oolong tea that costs NIS 350 for 50 grams.
His regular clients, some of whom come a few times a week to purchase teas for their homes, don’t necessarily have high incomes but have chosen tea as their guilty pleasure of choice.
“Some of my clients are students, who permit themselves to spoil themselves for quality tea.”
After a difficult first couple of years of the business, where Piamenta held a second job to support himself and would sit with his wife for days after the launch party, waiting for customers, things are looking promising for Halitatea. In January, they will launch a second store, the Tea Bar TLV, in the new Shuk Hatzafon (Northern Market), a trendy area in the Ramat Hahayal neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Piamenta was a recipient of the 2015 Keren Shemesh Fund award for young entrepreneurs.
He also runs workshops and seminars for bridal showers, birthdays and other life-cycle events.
He is adamant that, like the Jerusalem store, the Tel Aviv tea bar be certified kosher and closed on Shabbat.
“While the Tel Aviv store will have its own unique character, my business is quintessentially Jerusalem, and even has a touch of religious character,” he explains.
While Piamenta describes himself as traditional rather than observant, it is important to him that people from all walks of life can come to his store. He even has a large range of vegan products, desserts and chai teas for vegan Jerusalemites.
Piamenta’s only exception to this air of inclusivity is noisemakers.
“You can’t come here and make a noise. It is a place for dates, for proposals and for serious conversation. What gives me the most pleasure is to see people come in here and quietly read a book.”