When you step through the door of Cuples Tea House in Midtown Baltimore, you instantly exhale from the scents, the eclectic decor, and the Afrocentric touches in the seating and on the walls. It’s no wonder so many people come here to sip and chill. “The space is so cute,” says regular customer Breanna Crawley, who has been following Cuples since they were only online.
“And I love the way the subtleties of our culture are infused into the space. Coming here has become one of my favorite little self-care things to do. It breaks up the monotony of working from home.”
Co-owner Lynnette Dodson loves hearing that. “We both love to entertain, and we’re both warm and inviting and that’s a reflection of our space,” Dodson says of herself and her husband, Eric. “One of our customers said, ‘It feels like I’m walking into a hug in this place.’ And that is the end goal, to make sure customers enjoy their experience and leave feeling good.”
Tea for Two
Dodson has loved tea for as long as she can remember. “If you let my mom tell it, I was drinking tea out of a bottle since I was a baby,” she laughs. “Flavored iced tea is my go-to, and Eric is a hot tea drinker. So when we started dating…it was always a date over tea,” she explains.
After they married, her husband came up with the idea of creating something for residual income. “At first we thought of an online wine business, but everything kept pointing to tea,” notes Dodson. “We did our research and took workshops and tea-blending classes, but when we went out to California to the World Tea Conference, our minds were blown!”
The West Baltimoreans and Morgan State University grads learned that, globally, tea is the second most consumed beverage behind water. “It was big,” exclaims Dodson. “We got to do some Japanese tea ceremonies, we got to do some tastings with a tea sommelier, and we learned how to taste teas and cup teas,” she continues. “The art of drinking tea is called ‘cupping.’ And that’s kind of where our name Cuples Tea House came from,” Dodson discloses. “We did a play on ‘cupping’ and a play on ‘couple,’” she laughs.
At the tea conference, the Dodsons learned about various distributors in the U.S., packaging and design. “So when we got back to Baltimore, we started curating the whole thing and connected with some local distributors and we tasted a lot of teas,” she notes. “Today we have more than 50 teas and we’re still growing.” She continues, “We create some blends in-house and we source most of the teas that are already blended from three distributors in the U.S. But the teas are coming from the origins where they’re grown. For example, we’re getting Darjeeling teas from India and jasmine teas from Fuji.”
Dodson adds, “We vetted the distributors we work with here in the U.S. to make sure that wherever the teas are coming from, those farmers are paid fair wages and that the working conditions are safe.”
The Dodsons started Cuples Tea House in 2015 by doing farmers markets, pop-ups, tea education classes and private tea tastings. “And fast forward when the pandemic hit, we were already established with an online presence and our online sales shot up by about 700 percent in 2020,” Dodson says with awe.
The pandemic also made the couple pivot to virtual tea parties. “We would mail out a box to clients with two tea samples and, depending on the budget, we could include an infuser, honey or macaroons,” Dodson describes. “And we would walk them through the prep work, so when we got on the video conference, we would steep it together and talk about it and have the whole experience.”
She continues, “We did that with organizations like The Links, Jack and Jill, and the Deltas.” They also started catering for clients like the Sagamore Pendry Baltimore hotel and the Maryland Institute College of Art. “MICA was starting this new diversity and inclusion program and they wanted to source local, Black-owned businesses. So we became their first Black-owned vendor and they were our first client, and we’re still with them to this day,” Dodson smiles.
“With a name like Cuples Tea House, we wanted to do a brick and mortar from the start,” says Dodson. “But when we went to our first tea conference, people were telling us, ‘Lay down your foundation and get your name out there, and then consider a brick and mortar,’” she explains.
But an opportunity came along that they couldn’t refuse. “The location chose us,” laughs Dodson. “We were part of the Howard Row Small Business Storefront Competition. And that challenge gave two business owners the opportunity to get rent-free space for one year. So we won and Cajou Creamery also won,” Dodson says with pride.
“And it also included the build-out of the space. All we had to do was put our things in it. We hired Regen, which is a young, Black design team and the construction team was amazing,” she effuses. “We opened in December of 2021, but even today, I still look around and just love this space.”
The Urban Tea Experience
This brings us back to the vibe and what Cuples calls the Urban Tea Experience. “The Urban Tea Experience is food, culture, art and music that is Eric and Lynnette,” Dodson states. “And that means we might not do the lace and doilies, we might not do the egg salad sandwiches and lemon curd,” she continues. “But we might do chicken and waffles. We might do a sweet potato scone and a cornbread biscotti. We do those things that keep the traditional elements of a tea or tea party but present it in a way that fits our culture,” Dodson says with pride.
Charissa Garrett and her friend Mia Robinson enjoy doing high tea at various locations, so when Charissa saw Cuples Tea House on Instagram, she decided they had to come and support it. “I love everything about it,” she exclaims. “I had the iced Lavender Peach Rose tea with the pho soup, the blackened chicken wrap and the Caesar salad with cornbread croutons.” Robinson also had the blackened chicken wrap with the Apple Blueberry hot tea. “Everything was delicious! We’ll be back,” she declares.
“Our in-house blends are the most popular, like our Moroccan Mint, our Afro Blueberry, which is green rooibos tea, and our Bmore Chi is one of our top-selling chi blends,” notes Dodson. “It’s a black tea base with red peppercorn, black peppercorn, ginger, cardamom and cloves. So it gives you that fiery kick like Baltimore. And we put a purple cornflower in it for our lovely Baltimore Ravens,” she smiles.
“And there are even a couple of teas that I recommend to coffee drinkers, like Mocha Nut Matte,” Dodson continues. “It gives you the boost of caffeine like coffee. It has cocoa nibs and chicory in it and it gives you that smell like a cup of coffee. And we froth it up with a little almond milk and you don’t know you’re not drinking a cup of coffee,” she admits. “And we also have Pu-erh Hazelberry, which has chocolate and the cocoa nibs, and it gives you a hazelnut taste followed by a strawberry finish. And it’s delightful. And some people feel like they can wean themselves off of coffee with that tea,” she boasts
Supporting and Buying Black
The Dodsons make it a point to support Black-owned vendors for their menu, using H3irloom Catering for her breakfast and lunch items, Kora Lee’s Gourmet Desserts Cafe for pastries, and Treats4Eats for her gluten-free and vegan foods. They also believe in supporting Black artisans in the community.
Along with their loose-leaf teas and teaware, there is artwork and other products for sale from local Black artists. “The candles are from 228 Grant Street Candle Company and the t-shirts are by From Baltimore with Love, which sells phenomenally. We also have The Future is Female ‘Black Girl Magic’ line of insulated mugs. And Eric’s niece owns KDS Jewelry and makes jewelry with HBCU and Greek letter organization logos.”
Then there’s the music. “We have a turntable with vinyl records, and we have ‘Free Spin Fridays’ for customers where they can choose one of our records and put it on the turntable,” says Dodson. “And on Saturdays, we encourage customers to bring their own vinyl. Somebody might say, ‘I’m about to drink this green tea, so I think I’ll put an Al Green record on.’ Those are really popular days and it’s a whole vibe,” she effuses. Regular customer Warmley adds, “I’m a huge vinyl collector and so is Eric, so we’ll talk about our record collections and I’ll spin a few.”
And on Saturdays, Cuples also does something called a “Tea Flight.” “A flight is four different teas,” Dodson explains. “Last August, which was Black Business Month, we put all black teas on the flight.” And sipping while looking at the photo of Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee and Eartha Kitt drinking tea, which Eric Dodson bought online, gives the space an added Black royalty vibe, inviting you to tap into your inner queen.
Expanding the Vibe
The Dodsons also like taking their teas on the road. “We did Morgan on the Vineyard a few weeks ago, says Dodson. “And we also connected with a Black woman there named India Rose, who owns the athletic store, Sideline. She created the Martha’s Vineyard Black Business Directory. And we partnered on a tea event in her space.”
Dodson adds, “We also connected with a Black-owned bourbon company called New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery, out of New Hampshire, to do our ‘Mocktail Cocktails,’ where we do a bourbon tea that you can have with or without [real] bourbon. We also have a peach Bellini tea that you can have with or without Champagne.”
Dodson says they also enjoy partnering on events with other Black businesses on their block, like Cajou Creamery and Vegan Juiceology. Cuples is also looking for opportunities to expand the vibes with a larger space – maybe even expanding to the space next door. Dodson concludes, “More Black businesses are coming, so we’re excited to be a part of this urban revitalization of Baltimore.”
To learn more about Cuples Tea House, visit their website and location at 409 N. Howard Street Wednesday – Saturday and on Sundays for private events and bookings. For the latest on their new products and events, visit their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. Finally, visit their YouTube page for Cuples Tea House videos.