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Cups & Chairs: The Neighborhood Elixer.

June 18, 2012

Text by Kim Maialetti. Image by G.W. Miller III.

Kylie Tsai is quick with a smile and a wave when customers enter her tea café at the corner of 5th and Monroe streets in Queen Village.

Like an old-fashioned apothecary, Tsai dispenses remedies in the form of hot or cold tea for whatever ails you.

Need to relax? Have a little chamomile.

Feel a cold coming on? Try some lemongrass with peppermint and honey.

Had a little too much fun over the weekend? The detox tea will have you re-energized and clearing the cobwebs from your head in no time.

Tsai offers nearly 50 different types of tea at her 2-year-old café, aptly named Cups & Chairs, where locals linger throughout the day and gather for monthly music nights and open mic sessions.

“My vision for a tea shop was that it should be comfortable and relaxing,” says Tsai, explaining that the couches are for families to lounge, the long tables for students to study and the round tables and chairs for people to talk. “It’s really exactly how I wanted it.”

Born in Taiwan, Tsai moved to the United States in 1993 to attend graduate school in Michigan. After earning her master’s degree in computer science, she worked as a systems analyst for 10 years, eventually moving to Philadelphia and to work at pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

Then, she decided to quit.

“One day I just felt like I had been doing this job for too long,” recalls Tsai, 39. “I was sick and tired of working so hard for other people. I said, ‘You know what? I want to be my own boss.’ I figured why not work on my dream.”

Tsai continued to spend her days analyzing the safety records of certain drugs but devoted her nights and weekends to studying tea and creating a business plan for Cups & Chairs.

As the daughter of a successful Taiwanese businessman who often entertained clients with the best oolong tea money could buy, Tsai had a head start. She remembers how in Taiwan, tea sellers would go door-to-door peddling low quality oolong and how her father would always buy just a little to keep the sellers moving along.

“In my house there would be good quality oolong and bad oolong,” Tsai says. “I guess I am trained to differentiate between what is good and what is bad. It’s just instinct.”

Tsai choose to open Cups & Chairs in Queen Village because of the neighborhood feel, the sense of community and the foot traffic.

The building where the café is located was once a fabric store but had long been vacant. Nonetheless, its price tag proved a stretch for Tsai and almost killed the project when she ran out of money before opening.

It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The economy was collapsing and lenders weren’t loosening up their purse strings for anyone. Except for one bank – Port Richmond Savings.

Tsai explains that the Chinese believe there is always a special person who will help you along your way. In a sense, she feels that way about Port Richmond Savings and in an even greater sense, about the neighborhood in general.

“I have so many, many, many customers who are supportive,” Tsai says. “This neighborhood supports me. I also need to support this neighborhood.”

To that end, Tsai hosts open mic nights and opens her café to local musicians and artists. Her first music night, however, failed to be a hit.

“I tried to have my first music night on Yom Kippur,” Tsai says, laughing at her poor timing. “Nobody came.”

Since then, she’s paired with David Simons, who owned the Khyber Pass and Trocadero in the late 80s and the 90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam ushered in the grunge era.

Today, Simons works as an artist developer with Conquer Entertainment and is a fan of Cups & Chairs, where he is a devoted customer.

After learning Simons was in the music business, Tsai enlisted his help to book monthly music nights, which occur one Friday every month and are aimed at promoting local and regional singer-songwriters.

“It’s a small place but we pack them in,” says Simons. “It’s a lot of fun.”

A thriving local music scene is a key element for a vibrant city, Simons and Tsai agree, and businesses like Cups & Chairs can play a key role.

“The whole arts and entertainment side of building a successful urban spot for people to live is crucial,” says Simons. “The kinds of people who want to live in a hip, urban environment want to have access to more live entertainment and music.”

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