OF COURSE, ABBI’S Teas & Things is in the Hillcrest Historic District of Little Rock. Of course, Abbi Siler has stocked her store with bags of tea and an array of unique teapots and a variety of mugs and tumblers for sale. And of course, Abbi’s first words to me are, “Can I make you a tea?” as the hazel-eyed dynamo bustles back to her kitchen to steep some Turmeric Sunrise (a blend of orange, apple, mango and turmeric). It’s just the sort of place that you’d expect to be cute, and charming, and headed by the hostess with the mostess.
But Abbi’s Teas & Things has just as many pleasant surprises as “of courses” scattered throughout the ground floor of the two-story classic Craftsman cottage that the store calls home. When you walk in and head to the register, look to the windows on your right, and you’ll see a glass cutting board embossed with Lionel Richie’s face, accompanied by the words, “Hello, is it TEA you’re looking for?” Stroll through the gift shop, and you’ll find multiple plastic tea sets for kids, because clearly, appreciation for a good cuppa should begin at an early age. Then head around the corner to the dining room, where the woodwork is slightly wonky a la Alice in Wonderland, and a clock made from teacups, saucers and teaspoons adorns the wall, silently informing you that it is always teatime here.
The biggest thing you’ll find at the store, however—unexpectedly, perhaps, if you’ve never been here, or absolutely expectedly if you have—is pure, unadulterated glee … with the store’s owner undoubtedly being its source. As Abbi leads me back to the official tea room, complete with a wall of windows looking out at the Arkansas sunshine, an old hutch full of china, and flowered tablecloths gracing round tables perfect for a gathering of little girls, she tells me that the pastries they serve here (like the cranberry-pecan scones) have “no calories in any of them. We don’t believe in calories.” I think she then starts to follow up with something like, “There actually are calories in them … ,” but I’ve already moved on to imagining my 7-year-old daughter sitting around these tables with her friends, sipping tea with their pinkies held aloft.
Those cranberry-pecan scones she keeps on-hand come from none other than local bakery Old Mill Bread & Flour Co., which also provides both the breads for the light sandwiches Abbi assembles every morning at the crack of dawn and the kitchen in which to do that assembly. But while these nibbles are decidedly delicious, as far as Abbi is concerned, they place in a distant second to her brews because, at Abbi’s Teas & Things, “The tea’s the thing.”
And tea really is the thing for the Little Rock-born businesswoman. It became an absolute need for her in college because, as Abbi puts it, “I always had tummy trouble and couldn’t do coffee like everybody else.” So when she visited China more than a decade ago, she totally fell in love with how tea was grown. She started a blog in which she reviewed various teas—and got paid with product. At every job she’s ever had—from marketing director at Kitty Hawk Kites in North Carolina to marketing analyst at telecommunications service provider Optus in Jonesboro to director of digital strategy and social media at Stone Ward in Little Rock—she had a tea shelf on the wall, with which she would indulge her passion on a daily basis. And as a digital marketing instructor for Arkansas State University’s College of Business, she would use the template of an as-yet-imaginary tea shop to teach marketing management to her students. “When former students come into the shop now, they marvel at it,” Abbi says.
Former students aren’t Abbi’s only fans, though. “I have a squad of girls who are my newest friends,” she says of a gaggle of teenagers who often set up shop after school. Neighborhood kids come by and use her many-colored sidewalk chalk to spruce up the concrete around the place. Some of the youths tell her they dream of being bakers; one 11-year-old even shadowed Abbi for an afternoon. And a particularly clever young lady (one Mary Grace) set up a Girl Scout Cookies nook and left a jar for donations to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ NICU (neonatal intensive-care unit) family pantry—not unlike another little Girl Scout who was a precocious entrepreneur herself.
Hanging on a wall of the shop is a framed, yellowed newspaper article in which a journalist writes about the time a young Abbi and her dachshund, Maggie, showed up at his door selling Girl Scout Cookies. “Put your name and address on the left side [of the order form],” third-grade Abbi instructed him, “and on the right side, you pick the kind of cookies you want,” effectively saving the man the trouble of deciding whether or not he was actually going to buy any.
And with tea as good as what Abbi stocks, she’s saved me the trouble of deciding whether or not I am actually going to buy any. She has Darjeeling teas from India, and black teas from the Yunnan Province in China, and hibiscus teas from Egypt and North Africa, and fruit teas and herb teas that she works to source locally. And while she prefers nonblended teas herself (“I’m such a traditionalist,” she says), the blends she carries—which she herself creates—intrigue me. I consider buying the Turmeric Sunrise I drank earlier, which was a delicious blend of the earthiness of a curry and the citric brightness of orange, apple and mango—exactly like a sunrise. I look at the Cherry Fig that’s a big hit with the regulars, then think about the Lavender Hibiscus that Abbi says is great over ice with a dash of coconut milk for the summer. But it’s the Banana Nut Roo tea that I find irresistible. Who wouldn’t want tea that tastes, as Abbi promises, like a cup of warm banana nut bread? “I like it with a splash of milk and some honey,” she tells me. Of course, my new tea guru would know how to take a great tea and make it even greater. Of course.
The Bare Necessi-teas
The Tea’s the thing—but these are, too
Gaiwan Teapot, $20
This Japanese teapot’s porous pottery is like cast iron: The more you use it, the more it soaks up layers of flavor. (Note: With this teapot, you’ll only want to use one type of tea, traditionally white or green.)
Tea Tumblers, $30
These double-walled containers come with a basket infuser to brew your tea on the go and give you the ability to remove the leaves before your drink turns bitter. With a bamboo top and clear glass so you can see the color of your tea, this simple staple is a looker.
If you’re looking for a way to support a local business at a time when they need it most, consider placing a curbside to-go order from Abbi’s, an order from the online store on her website or purchasing an e-gift card at squ.re/3brx5OD. If you need to get out of the house and stretch your legs, Abbi’s is also currently running an outdoor tea stand in front of the shop selling loose leaf tea, a rotating selection of hot tea by the cup, and a $20 “Tea Party to Go” for the kiddos.
Civitan Art, $20 to $25
While you’re sipping your tea and looking at the beautiful original art on the walls, pay special attention to the work for sale from Civitan Services folks. Created by adults with developmental disabilities, these paintings are beautiful and creative, and the money made from sales goes back to the organization. And once a year, Abbi’s hosts a show of all-Civitan art, where the creators themselves come and talk to collectors about their work.
Goji Ginger, $10 (2 oz)
Made with organic dried goji berries, ginger root, Hibiscus flowers, orange peels and rose hips, this new spring blend is citrusy with a nice gingery kick. Bonus: Thanks to the dose of ginger and hibiscus, it’s also pretty darn good at aiding digestion, soothing nausea and promoting overall heart health.
2622 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock | (501) 246-5077
Abbi’s shop might be closed for the moment, but you can still order online. Better yet, swing by for a nice cuppa curbside, (11 a.m. – 5 p.m., when the weather’s not nasty).