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Lady Bonin’s Woodstock Tea Shop

Cape Town’s favourite travelling tea lady finally puts down roots

When Jessica Bonin, the young creative brain behind Lady Bonin’s Tea Parlour, decided in late 2010 to launch her travelling take-away tea caravan, it was, she admits, more of a means to an end than an attempt to jump on Cape Town’s mobile dining bandwagon.

On the contrary, her initial plans were somewhat more conventional, with hopes to establish a stable store out of which to sell her freshly-brewed aromatic infusions. Lacking the necessary finances and concerned about the associated risks, however, the Joburg-born entrepreneur turned to this more affordable nomadic option as a mere temporary solution. And, with vintage-bohemian trailer in tow and a magical assortment of high quality, organic, loose-leaf teas on hand, she resigned to making the Mother City markets and festivals an alternative base for her quest to revolutionise the practice of tea drinking.

Now, a year and a half later, with the forthcoming opening of the shop she always dreamed of, Jessica realises in retrospect that she owes her overwhelming popularity to this fortuitous turn of fate. She recognises, that is, that it can only be seen as serendipitous that the same circumstances that pushed her to down-scale have inadvertently set her up for success.

“In hindsight, the way it’s unfolded has been such a blessing,” she says, her passion for her trade almost tangible. “I’ve been able to fine-tune my formula and grow the business organically so that its foundations are far more secure.”

And the business is more than simply secure; it’s practically booming. Not only has the quirky, teal-and-beige caravan helped the tea lady to test the waters, conduct some informal market research and develop her own entrepreneurial skills, but the novel, offbeat concept has pulled curious crowds of all ages.

This is hardly surprising, though, considering that, as Jessica says, “Cape Town is founded on the idea of individuality, self-expression and acceptance.” It is for this reason that she’s convinced the notion might not have taken off as well in any other South African city: it is a quintessentially Capetonian quirk that when residents see something that excites the imagination, something unique, niche, artisan – think the craft beer craze, for example – they want to be a part of it.

But the roaming caravan, complete with its Eastern elements, colourful wallpaper and Persian carpet for customers to laze on, has aided Lady Bonin on her mission in other ways too.

Drawn to tea’s warm, nurturing associations, but aware that the brew holds older, elitist attachments too, Jessica’s original goal was to transform the public perception of the beverage and affirm its place in a modern, fast-paced world. Interestingly, the vintage trailer, with its fun, fashionable aura has been a crucial revolutionising force – by affiliation, it’s helped to put tea on trend, to give it something of a cool culture.

In fact, the demand that she’s created for loose-leaf tea in all its various flavours and forms is so strong that customers have, for some time now, been pushing for a store that’s a little more stationary. As well-loved as the caravan concept might be, it’s devoted supporters are craving more than intermittent access at Saturday markets and the odd festival; they want a space where they can find their desired blends daily.

Lady Bonin’s bricks-and-mortar tearoom – opening on 31 July 2012, an exciting realisation of Jessica’s initial aspirations – is set to be just this space. And although her offbeat caravan will certainly drive the success of this shop initially, she is quite confident that, like the trailer has done, it will ultimately grow into its own entity.

Based at the old Woodstock Industrial Centre (now called the Woodstock Exchange) – a point of delight for the lovely tea lady as it places her smack in the middle of an up-and-coming creative hub – the quaint 70-square-metre café will, she says, combine eclectic elements of the caravan’s characteristic bohemian feel with industrial decor touches – a maze of red water piping, for example – that are drawn from the old building itself.

Customers who’d like to linger a while will have the option of lounging on colourful floor seating arrangements, sitting at small tables outside or bathing in soft sunlight on bench seating at the store’s back . Jessica aspires to create a space that’s inspiring, warm and welcoming, an ambience that invites patrons to connect, to share passions and experiences.

Like the mobile parlour, the shop will also sell quick take-away cups of tea – both hot and iced – for those on the run, as well as 50g glass jars and biodegradable packages of loose tea leaves for those who’d rather enjoy their brew at home.

While the 23 distinct types of unblended tea purveyed from the trailer will stay as the main selection, the cafe’s focus will be on stocking an almost endless array of rare, refreshing blends.

“It’s going to be like a Sweets from Heaven for tea,” says Jessica, antsy with excitement. “There’ll be bins and bins of leaves from which people can pick and choose and mix and weigh; like a spice store of sorts.”

And to complement the fragrant herbal brews, she plans to cook up a small array of simple, homely South African favourites on-site and to source an assortment of fresh pastries, cakes and confections from artisan suppliers. What’s more, in a testament to the versatility of the commodity, Jessica hopes to experiment with a few tea-flavoured treats, such as spiced Chai cupcakes, Earl Grey-infused biscuits, and Darjeeling and peanut butter-flavoured ice cream.

 Also on sale will be an eclectic collection of glass and cast-iron teapots, pretty, vintage teacups and infusers, and – because this young professional is committed to supporting those in her surrounding community, as they have her – a display of works by local creatives.

With so many established, rooted plans in the pipeline, it would seem that this free-spirited wanderer might just be settling down for good. But when asked whether the launch of the shop will dictate the end of her quirky trailer’s weekly Cape Town travels, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Jessica is far from ready to let her mobile parlour go. It may have started as just a means to an end, but the charismatic caravan is now the well-loved mascot of the Lady Bonin brand.

Opening Hours: To be confirmed; remember, the tea shop only opens its doors on 31 July 2012.

Shop AG11b | Woodstock Exchange (formerly Woodstock Industrial Centre) | 66 Albert Road | Woodstock | Cape Town | +27 (0) 83 628 2504

By Dayle Kavonic

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Read more about Lady Bonin’s newest venture, The Tea Bar in Long Street. It is Cape Town’s (not to mention, the country’s) first ever hotspot dedicated solely to the leafy brew. Or, if you prefer the allure of the nomadic lifestyle? Read more about Lady Bonin’s travelling take-away tea caravan.

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