words: Kellie Cobb
Images: courtesy Savoy Tea Co.
“There are like 40,000 to 50,000 coffee shops in the U.S., but only about 3,000 tea shops.” -Bill Beyer
There is a certain kind of day poets write about. A day when the morning sun catches your face like a warm whisper with a soft breeze as delicate as a porcelain teacup. It was on such a day that I drank my tea at Savoy Tea Co., surrounded by the mingling air of spices and jasmine flowers.
Located in downtown Fort Smith at Tenth and Garrison, proprietors Bill and Tina Beyer had planned my experience to the smallest detail.
Bill’s background is in corporate event planning and Tina worked for Walmart as Grand Opening Coordinator for Sam’s stores. Leaving corporate-life they opened Skia, an award-winning Christian retail store in Bentonville. Their combined business backgrounds made them uniquely suited to creating a pleasing customer experience. Add to that their shared adoration of tea. “We love tea,” they said simultaneously, and Tina continued, “In our travels, we would try teas.” It was on one of these travels that they stayed at the Savoy Hotel in Florence, Italy, which would later inspire their businesses’ name.
Bill and Tina, who describe themselves as serial entrepreneurs, found themselves at a crossroads. As empty nesters they felt it might be time for something new, and with the 2008 financial crisis, the closure of Skia opened a window for fresh ideas. Bill and Tina sought new opportunities that might allow them to enjoy their shared passion for retail business and their growing expertise in tea. According to Tina, “We just saw a void in the market. As entrepreneurs we saw what was available out there, and we saw nothing.” Bill added, “There are like 40,000 to 50,000 coffee shops in the U.S., but only about 3,000 tea shops.”
Interestingly, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world (after water), as well as the fastest growing beverage in the United States, with a retail market value exceeding $10B. According to the Specialty Tea Institute, the leading professional tea organization in the U.S., “Like fine wines, specialty teas have an almost infinite variety of flavors, origins and appearances, as well as a rich history and a variety of traditions.”
“Once I started getting into it I found I can really geek out about tea,” Bill said.”Tea really lends itself to that. As soon as you start to understand the processes that go into making tea, and learn about tea varieties, how it’s grown, how it’s made and blended, where it comes from, it just opens up this whole new world to you and you can literally just spend your whole life learning about it.
“For me, one of the things that drives me as a person is business. I’m kind of obsessed with business,” he chuckled. “When I got to take on something like tea, which I love, I went through those processes (of developing a business plan). But I also learned how to source teas, how to professionally prepare and cup tea. And then I needed to learn how to make sure the customers have something wonderful and special.”
Bill and Tina take that preparation seriously. Tina trained with world-renowned tea experts to become an internationally certified tea sommelier. Bill is a Certified Tea Specialist as designated by the Specialty Tea Institute.
They first built two Savoy Tea Co. shops in northwest Arkansas, but wanted to expand. On a casual Sunday drive to Fort Smith, they spotted the 1920s corner building at Garrison and Tenth Street. Peeking into the windows they immediately knew they had their third location. Although they had not spent much time in Fort Smith, they loved the spirit and liveliness they felt visiting downtown. “We love cities. We love the energy of downtown areas. I love just sitting in front of this window and watching the people and traffic. I love the energy.“ Bill said. Tina loved the feeling of Garrison Avenue and immediately had a vision of what the space could do and be and it suited their needs perfectly.
Bill and Tina built a teashop that’s warm, elegant, and welcoming. With its crystal chandeliers contrasting with piles of colorful tea cups The Savoy Tea Co. feels like something sparkly and new blended with the utterly refined and comfortable. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves, filled with teas – there is nothing else like it in Fort Smith.
Bill scours the world for the best teas on the planet, but also creates original custom blends, giving them fanciful names. “Sometimes we come up with the blend and name it, or sometimes I just have a name in my head and blend a tea to go with that name,” Bill said.
One original Savoy Tea Co. blend is Here Be Dragons, a combination of green tea from Hubei, China, dragon fruit, red gogi berries, and mallow flowers. As Bill explained, the name came from a nineteenth century map. The European cartographer had marked an unexplored China with the warning “here be dragons.”
Bill also created a line of teas men might enjoy. The flavors are smokier, stronger, and whiskey-inspired. He named the first one “Gentleman and a Scholar,” which competed in the World Tea Championships.
Bill does a lot of the blending with his graphic-designer daughter Krista Hinson. Krista makes the graphics for Savoy Tea Co., including signage, and the giant apothecary wall of teas. For fun, Bill once purchased two white lab coats for their work in the 2,500 square foot Tea Lab, which they built in the basement of their Fayetteville store in 2014.
The Tea Lab is also used for public classes on tea preparation and tea culture. “We love educating people about tea. Being able to bring that to our customers and the community is really important to us. If we’re going to be in this business we need to know more about tea than anybody. This is our life. We want every single customer, every single day, to learn something new, and try something different. Bringing that experience and sharing these amazing teas with people is just the best,” explained Bill. They plan to bring classes to Fort Smith soon.
Everything at Savoy Tea Co. is a family collaboration. Bill and Krista are all about the teas, but Tina’s job is to make sure you have a wonderful visit. She is the CEO of happy. “There is just something about being the hostess and making people happy that just feeds my spirit,” Tina said. Her enjoyment of her customers and employees is infectious. The primary job of all staff members is to care about customers, and in turn Bill and Tina care for them. Employees not only enjoy all and any teas while working, but also receive free tea on their days off.
Tina’s favorite role at the Savoy Tea Co. is hosting tea parties for princesses of all ages. At one event, to Tina’s great delight, a young tea partier tugged at her sleeve and whispered, “Can I call you Highness?” as in Her Royal Highness.
In addition to their teas, Savoy offers a lovely lunch experience. The menu features freshly made sandwiches and seasonal soups and salads. They also have a selection of pastries and coffee drinks.
But their main focus is tea. In their menu there is a question: “Have you ever tasted a place?” In every cup of tea, the menu explains, you taste the soil, the climate, but also the history and the traditions. “When you are smelling the tea, if you smell a floral or sweet aroma, that’s actually a flower that was grown in a tea garden half-way across the world. It’s important to know that it’s something special, something to really notice,” Bill said.
And there is a romance to tea. Tea has a remarkable history in the ancient and modern world. Wars have been fought over tea. Trade conspiracies to gain access to forbidden tea seeds brought about foreign intrigue. Camels marched thousands of miles across continents to carry tea to kings and their courts. Until the end of the Opium Wars in 1842, no European country could get tea without an Emperor’s approval.
So, tea is special. Tea is an experience. Bill and Tina want us to savor it. And tea is special in another particular way. “Tea makes you wait,” said Bill. You have to sit, let it steep, and allow it to develop. As you do, you might catch the delicate floral perfume of a lovely green tea or the smoky aroma of a fine black tea, or maybe even the scent of dragons.
The Savoy Tea Co. is located at 925 Garrison Avenue, Fort Smith. Operating hours are 7am to 6pm, Monday through Saturday and they are closed Sunday. The lunch menu is served from 11am to 2:30pm daily, with pastries and light fare offered all day.
Savoy Tea Co. has additional locations in Fayetteville near the Square and Rogers at Pinnacle Hills Promenade Mall. Visit them online at savoytea.com.