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New family business opens in a favorite Sellwood landmark

TEA REPLACES BOOKS
by: Mary E. Campbell Meet Angela and Dominic Valdez, owners of “Tea Chai Te”, Sellwood’s new tea shop – in the “red caboose” on S.E. 13th.

The hidden Sellwood building with the red caboose in front, most recently 'Looking Glass Books', has just reopened as 'Chai Tea Te', Dominic and Angela Valdez' growing tea shop enterprise - where they hope customers will warm to their handcrafted teas, and 'commune' in their highly-original space.

The seven-year-old family tea company, a husband-wife operation, wants to 'honor the caboose', the local landmark that harkens to Sellwood's streetcar past - and the children's Golden Book classic, 'The Little Red Caboose,' which made the red railcar a hero and a household name.

'It's got that 'Tea Chai Te' vibe that we need,' said Angela, of their new space. 'It's nostalgic and comforting.'

The caboose itself also has seating inside, including two elevated 'skybox' window seats that you access by climbing rungs. The space includes a private courtyard and rock fountain, a copper topped bar, and a floor-to-ceiling display wall that houses their inventory in stainless steel tea cans.

Located on S.E. 13th Street a bit north of Tacoma Street, Tea Chai Te literally shares a wall with Grand Central Bakery, and has added some of the bakery's goods to their own menu. The synchronicity continues, with a beekeeping supply store that sells private label honey directly behind them.

The Valdez's continue to source from neighborhood businesses that complement theirs, she said.

Tea Chai Te offers more than 120 teas, 65 of them organic. They offer regularly available, seasonal, and featured teas, and a small food menu with vegan options. They also sell accessories - such as specialty tea pots and textural pottery mugs.

With cozy surroundings and free wi-fi, the couple aim to duplicate the success of their original N.W. 23rd Street tea shop, which is nestled in the second floor of a Victorian, near the corner of Johnson Street.

They also sell wholesale tea online, and retail tins under their 'Tea Chai Te' label at several food co-ops and Whole Foods locations.

As with the hand-mixing of their teas, the pair are very focused on cultivating a particular ambience. Using vintage furniture, local art, space for reading, board games, magazines, 'doodle books' - even light fixtures made of glass Mason jars - you start to sense that the Valdez' strategy is building a space as nurturing as their teas.

Angela says they want to 'cater to that sense of calm and peace', and allow customers to feel that they can 'be who they are' while in the shop.

The attitude there is so relaxed, in fact, that you can bring in food from the bakery or neighboring food carts without issue. 'People love to be able to feel welcome,' she said.

The Valdez' are emblematic of Portland's small-time enterpreneural scene, characterized by a high personalization factor, with a throwback hippie quality. The title of Angela's blog on their website? The 'Peace, Love and Tea Blog.'

The couple entered eight of their tea blends in the Oregon State Fair's first state tea competition this past September. All of them ribboned, including six blue-ribbon winners, earning some old-time recognition and a nod to the simple life.

The gentle tea purveyors managed a public relations coup of sorts, when their tea tins were selected as props to be used on the set of Independent Film Channel's (IFC's) hit comedy 'Portlandia,' starring Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein.

Blink and you'll miss it - but you can see a tin of Tea Chai Te tea on the shelf directly over Armisten's shoulder in the new promo ad for Season 2 (at the :10 and :25 points in the promo) which is now airing on IFC cable channel (and is on the show's website.)

Nevertheless, it's encouraging to get something just short of a love note on behalf of Portlandia's art department from Schuyler Telleen, who has also worked on the show 'Madmen', famous for its exacting and powerfully nostalgic 1950s and 1960s-era set accuracy.

'Your tea is amazing,' wrote Telleen. 'We just wrapped shooting on season 2, and it was so great to have your unique tea cans on our set...I am sure we will see a lot of [them] this season... We will be in touch next year, for season 3.'

The Valdez' have invited the show to film at their caboose, and have offered them caboose-emblazoned T-shirts - one plain, and one with the tagline 'I Take My Tea in The Caboose'.

Somehow, it's not hard to imagine Fred and Carrie climbing aboard and doing just that.

Tea Chai Te at Sellwood's caboose is open daily, seven days a week, from 9 am to 10 pm. Call them at 503/432-8747, or visit them online at: www.teachaite.com .