Though it has only been a Western commodity for the past few centuries, tea has one of the longest and most illustrious histories of any beverage. Legend cites its discovery by Emperor Shennong of China around 2700 BCE, though early written record of the drink only stretches back to 300 CE or so. Trade routes were soon developed to ensure its speedy progress across the oceans. Great Britain, for one, adopted tea as its national drink, and colonial resistance to a tax imposed upon the beverage led to the infamous Boston Tea Party of 1773.
Today, you can buy it at Starbucks. Unfortunately.
The John Company (another name referring to the East India trading company), located at 5681 Avenue du Parc, is at the forefront of what can safely be called the “tea revival movment.”
“I always wanted an avenue to be different with a restaurant,” explains owner Rob Wiseman. “And then I was reading about the tea shops becoming more and more popular in the States and even in Montreal and I decided it would be a much more feasible idea to have a teahouse/restaurant in the near future than to have the 70 seat restaurant that I ultimately want to have. So I decided to put the two together and the John Company was born out of that.”
On Feb. 13 of this year, Wiseman’s five-year stint with Rogers wireless came to an end when the store he worked at closed its doors. That same evening, the 23-year-old entrepreneur began to draft a business plan with a fresh idea in mind.
“A year ago I got into tea,” Wiseman elaborates. “I really like tasting the subtleties from one thing to another. It’s very easy to get into something like this. You start tasting two or three different teas and all of a sudden you’re like: ‘Ouhh. The blackberry notes compared to the honey notes in this one are really great. The smokiness in this one compared to the flatter taste in this one.’ It could go on forever.”
Most North American households have forgotten about the purity and understated wonders of tea drinking, settling for store-bought Taster’s Choice or whatever mediocrity the local coffee shop is likely to serve you. John Company’s ultimate goal is to steer everyday folk towards a fresher, subtler blend. Basically, they pour hot water over the leaves and let the tea work its magic.
“If you have someone who’s used to drinking packaged tea from bags, they’ll be more likely than anyone to notice how much more robust these flavours are, how much fresher, because this is the correct way to drink tea,” explains John Lumar, John Company’s manager and an old teenage friend of Wiseman’s. “The one-off that you get if you’re drinking packaged tea is what’s left at the bottom of the barrel.”
In the process of establishing the business, Wiseman sampled hundreds of different teas before settling upon the 55 you’ll now find in the store. “I had to sit down with somebody who had the knowledge of 100-150 different teas so that he could guide me along the path of which teas we both felt would be good sellers, which teas had certain health benefits that are important, because teas offer a multitude of different things for the body, from anti-oxidents to vitamins,” says Wiseman. “We have teas that help cure headaches, we have teas that help cure hangovers, we have teas that basically do it all for you.”
In addition to that, Wiseman remodeled what used to be a decrepit-looking kosher butchery on Parc avenue into a pleasant, serene Mile End hangout. The John Company’s look boasts a hip old-meets-new kind of flavour, provided by giant maps of East India trade routes at the entrance juxtaposed with modern graffiti, contemporary local artwork and a classic, elegant dining room at the back. Wiseman notes that creating a comfortable space was the prime motivator in his choice of décor. “You walk into a Java U and it’s all stainless steel and frosted glass,” Wiseman explains. You walk in, you look around and you say, ‘Am I cool enough to be hanging out in this place? Am I wearing the right clothes to be drinking an iced latte here? How many different words can I say to describe my coffee?’ I’m looking to create a warm atmosphere where people can come in, hang out and feel welcome.”
Wiseman, who does double duty as the John Company’s resident chef, also serves up a variety of foods, ranging from sandwich/salad dishes to delectable and unique fine cuisine experiences. For $20, customers receive a starter, a seasonal main course, dessert and choice of tea. For a touch of class, subtlety and comfort, the John Company is a fine place to spend an evening.