Tucked away behind Gibson Street in Glasgow’s West-End, at the bottom of a charming cobbled lane, on the banks of the River Kelvin, you’ll find Tchai-Ovna, House of Tea. For over 20 years Scotland’s premier tea house has served speciality teas from across the globe in a uniquely relaxing atmosphere. Their teas, especially their unique home blend, have been popular with our customers and you can now buy even more of their best-selling blends through Greencity. We asked Martin, the founder of Tchai-Ovna to tell us a little bit more about his world of tea…
1. How/why and when did you start your business?
I started Tchai-Ovna with my brother Robin and friends in 2000 whilst studying at Glasgow Uni. It was started on a shoe string budget – relying mostly on our student loans. My brother and I found the old mews premises, realised it was perfect for a Czech style speciality teahouse (cajovna) and then restored and converted it into a tea shop. We only expected it to last a year, but here we are today. Legend has it that I started it to impress a lassy I had just met… no comment.
2. How has COVID affected your business?
Socialising in a relaxed, safe, non-alcoholic environment, and showing you can enjoy live music and performances (and be completely sober), has always been as important as the quality and integrity of the tea we serve. The premises, which some say dates to the late 18th Century, is the oldest building in the area and has a magical, unique atmosphere. Even pets and toddlers chill out when in the Tchai-Ovna.
Unfortunately, due to Covid, for much of this past year people have not been able to enjoy the atmosphere, and when we have been open we have had to introduce a strict booking/reservation system which somewhat goes against our dreamy relaxed ethos. However, the tea remains an enduring symbol of what makes Tchai-Ovna special, and we have been lucky to have online retail to fall back on. This has been a learning curve but one which has really helped us as well as our customers feel connected to us – and indeed it has helped new customers find us.
Greencity has been really supportive,helping to get our teas into shops we wouldn’t have dreamed being in. All this has helped us survive so far, and when we can welcome customers back to our physical shop, we will be stronger for it.
The exterior of Tchai-Ovna, operating as a takeaway tea hatch during the pandemic
3. How do you think the food and drinks industry could improve in the wake of the pandemic?
I think the food and drinks industry was great before the coronavirus, and gradually getting better. By better I mean there has been more focus on the quality and ethics of food and drink, sourcing locally or organically when possible, sourcing ethically or fairtrade, as well as trying to give the products the respect they deserve in terms of preparation and presentation. It is something we at Tchai-Ovna and some other businesses such as Stravaigin and Edinburgh’s Pekoe Tea etc have been doing for some time now and I think this renewed emphasis on quality/ethical movement can only be a good thing.
I think the pandemic has forced many of us to look at what we do and how we can make it work, be that ramping up takeaway services, delivering quality fine dining level food to the doorstep or finding online retail avenues. I think it is the companies which embrace good ethical practices and can grasp opportunities and work hard to make innovations work that will survive the pandemic.
4. What motivates you?
I am motivated by the belief that what we do in the Tchai-Ovna is a good, positive thing. Aside from the spiritual benefit of taking time out in the premises (we don’t do wifi and even mobile phones have no signal) we have really good leaf tea and recipes that have taken years of preparing and serving every day to refine. According to many, the Yogi Chai, for example, is the best chai masala ever! We are very careful to select the right ingredients for our blends, every bit as important as expertise in blending. I think people can see that Tchai-Ovna has that sort of integrity and that’s why they choose us – and it is our customers’ enthusiasm which in turn motivates me more – kind of like a wonderful cycle.
Tchai Ovna owner Martin and family
5. Is there an individual or organisation, current or in the past, who inspires you
Czech cajovnas inspire me. They are mostly counter-mainstream culture, embrace timelessness, serve quality tea, celebrate multi-culturalism and have good environmental and ethical practices. Though Czech Republic is known for its more hedonistic tendencies, this unique tea culture is probably one of the country’s best contributions to the world – though not many people know about it in the West.
6. Apart from Greencity, which other three or more people, living or deceased, would you invite to make a dinner party entertaining?
John Coltrane – because I love jazz and he was a lovely humble guy
Kevin Bridges – who wouldn’t want to invite him round for a party?
Nigella Lawson – again who wouldn’t want to invite her round for a party – especially if she gave some helpful pointers?