Over the last five years, the White Dragon Tea Room has morphed several times and on Dec. 31, it will change again, into solely an Internet business.
For Michael Thunder, the change will allow him to partially retire, help new tea rooms get started, and he will still provide tea to his local customers.
He hopes to help found tea rooms in Oregon and Tennessee and serve as a consultant with his knowledge of wholesale providers and inventory management.
The specialty tea world is complex, with some subvarieties that are available only once and then never again.
Thunder tastes between 20 to 30 subvarieties of tea a year to supply his shop, and he has nurtured relationships with his suppliers to ensure he can stock his shelves with loose-leaf teas from China, India, Japan and Africa.
“One has to make sure his purveyors have integrity and are providing clean tea,” he said.
Some small growers use natural methods to grow clean tea without chemicals, but they aren’t officially certified as organic, so having trustworthy suppliers is important, he said.
Despite some complexity, Thunder staunchly believes the industry is going to keep growing as people turn from coffee to tea, he said.
When he got into the business there was a buzz around tea. It is healthier than coffee, and it offers a much larger range of flavors.
“There was a groundswell that’s not over yet,” he said.
Nationally, there were about 4,000 specialty tea rooms and shops across the country in 2014, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., This group predicts the specialty tea market will drive growth for the whole industry in the next few years.
While in Durango, the White Dragon regulars will mourn the loss of the room that offered them an alternative to coffee shops and bars.
When it started in a 350 square-foot space, the business was aimed at educating people about tea, one of his passions, Thunder explained.
He developed a love for tea as a 4-year-old, and he learned much about tea as a monk in Japan, where he was called White Dragon.
From the intimate, educational space, the White Dragon is now a gathering space that occupies 1,200 square feet and offers tisanes, which contain no real tea, but have become some of Thunder’s best sellers.
“I’ve learned to be flexible,” he said.
When the shop closes down, the business challenges will change again, and the expense of running a shop will end. But he will also no longer be able to market his product on its enticing smell or see the regulars that he’s grown to love.
“We’ve been incredibly well-supported by this community,” he said.