If you’ve not been, the Tea Lounge on Union is a surprisingly big and unique space, offering tea (duh), coffee, baked goods, a varied café menu, and a full bar with wine and specialty cocktails. In fact, it might be one of the largest places to nosh in the Slope, with scores of tables, chairs and couches arranged like a giant, flowing living room in a space that could house a couple of Food Coops.
Greeting everyone at the entrance is a message board: pets for adoption, lessons of every kind offered, notes seeking roommates or band mates, or rooms for bands or rooms for mating. In back, there’s a calendar for the thrice weekly live music events. The staff have personable personalities and the café mocha that I ordered looked like a piece of art. I’m not sure where else you can grab a loose leaf tea drink, tuna melt or shot of tequila while plugging in your laptop and staying an hour or three.
It’s a great example of a local business delivering a much better experience than chains like Starbucks or Dunkin D’s. So it was interesting to learn that after 12 years of serving Park Slope, the Tea Lounge is in fact offering the opportunity to franchise. I recently sat down with owner and founder Jonathan Spiel to learn more.
Usually, with franchising, almost every detail of the original concept must be duplicated to the letter. Exact ingredients. Exact menu. Exact design. Your Best Western shower soap, like the Wendy’s yellow napkins, is consistent from Tampa to Tacoma.
Spiel believes there are different types of entrepreneurs. Some will start their own businesses with little to no experience, and will spend a fortune making mistakes. Others will buy a franchise like a Subway or Dominos, where every detail is pre-thought. He understands the latter, but also wants to provide leeway.
“Most franchises are selling a product or brand," he said. "We’re selling the concept of community. We ultimately want each place to be neighborhood centers where people of all types can gather and meet. In simpler terms, we’ll suggest you have a supply of 12 0z glasses, but will not demand you get a specific set, bought through us. Also," he added, "We want the franchisee to have the ability to forge unique relationships. They should be encouraged to find their own, local baked goods suppliers. They should know what mix works for their area. It might be that in Tempe, Arizona, having 40 different iced teas and cold beer is more appealing in the desert summer."
What it really comes down to is tapping into Speil’s experience in opening and closing businesses. “There’s the Franchise fee," he explained. "There are capital costs. But really, if you are going to get into the restaurant business, you need to learn how to not get screwed by a plumber, or to not spend thousands on a piece of equipment that sucks. The franchise fee is probably smaller than what you’ll spend figuring things out on your own.”