An Apothecary of Tea"When someone orders a blend, I put it together at that moment. Everything starts from scratch at the shop."
Sarah Richards often dreamed of opening a tea shop. She dreamed of it when she worked as a bartender, as a waitress, and as a Spanish teacher. "I thought it was something I'd do when I retired," she says.
But then, six years ago, her dream overtook her calendar. "After 10 years of teaching, I thought I was ready to open my tea shop," she says. "So I did."
She opted against opening a shop in the bustling, tourist-oriented Old Port, which would generate lots of foot traffic. Instead, she chose the more low-key, community-oriented Munjoy Hill, a cluster of homes and small businesses atop a low hill just north of downtown. It was quiet, featuring sweeping views of Casco Bay. And it fit her like, well, foxglove.
"People who live on Munjoy Hill are part of a strong community," she says. "It's small and tight-knit."
What's more, it turned out to be a community ready for the type of tea shop she always dreamed of running.
Homegrown Herb & Tea isn't a tea-based version of a modern coffee shop, where patrons hunch over laptops or mutter into cellphones. She doesn't offer Wi-Fi; even her phone is an old-style rotary model. "It's a place you go to get away from [modern distractions]," she says.
Richards specializes in teas that not only taste good, but, when consumed in the right frame of mind, can heal. She's been interested in herbal remedies since she was given an herbal compendium at the age of 19. She began educating herself, starting with a more Western approach to herbal cures. "Ten or 15 years later, I learned about ayurvedic quality of plants," she says. So she immersed herself in studying this traditional Indian approach to medicine, and today that interest carries over to the teas she serves.
Some customers arrive knowing exactly what they want. Others ask her for advice, hoping to find, say, a tea that might soothe a headache or be a balm for rattled nerves. She listens — a friendly ear can be as helpful as a doctor's prescription, she says — then makes suggestions. "Most people come to their own conclusions about how to get well," she adds.
Richards has a menu with some 30 or 40 tea blends, plus seasonal specials on a blackboard. She also maintains a pile of index cards ("about 6 inches thick") filled with the names of customers and the blends they regularly request.
Once a customer chooses a blend, she makes it up fresh, taking each ingredient from its own jar — none of the blends are pre-made. "I do it apothecary-style," she says. "When someone orders a blend, I put it together at that moment. Everything starts from scratch at the shop."
Richards also grows a lot of the herbs she dispenses — about a third of her offerings during the summer and fall growing seasons — much of them coming from the farm she grew up on in central Maine. (Her brother now tends it.) Other herbs are grown by a scattered network of local organic farmers. "Nobody was doing this in Maine. And I thought it would take time for people to understand the shop. But they were so ready for it," Richards says. "I think I did this at the right time and the right place."
Check out Sarah's Portland, ME.