CLEARWATER — The unremarkable strip mall plaza off U.S. 19 belies the wonder that awaits at Joseph’s Tea Room and Shop.
Inside, a quaint lobby stuffed with tchotchkes opens up to a vast teal room decked out with tea pots and faux foliage and colorful photos, beckoning those looking for a classic afternoon tea experience.
Shannon and Guerby Joseph opened the spot in September 2021, the next step for an online tea business they began in 2020. They had only the lobby space at first, where Shannon says she was able to squeeze in 20 people. Just about a year ago they expanded next door, creating a new, larger dining room that can fit closer to 90 people.
Guerby, 39, designed and did most of the hands-on work for the space, tiling the floor, stenciling a border of teacups and teapots along the wall, and creating a photo opportunity in the corner with a red carpet and throne.
Shannon, 38, works here, greeting customers, walking them to their tables, bringing over trays of tea sandwiches and pastries. She has a small staff that helps keep things running, but this is a hands-on family operation. When she’s not tending to tea business, she’s taking care of Denzel, her and Guerby’s 9-month-old son, who on this particular day is hanging out in the back of the shop.
Her husband works just up the street at Joseph’s Tea Bar, their other brick-and-mortar spot on Dunedin’s Main Street. Opened just a few months ago, it’s a more intimate location with seating for 12 that serves coffee and tea lattes and mocktails that use tea as the base.
Shannon’s mom Cindy Martin is the head chef at the Clearwater spot, presiding over a menu that offers two kinds of tea service and a la carte items. You can indulge in a multicourse tea experience, or you can just order a chicken salad sandwich.
“It was very important to me that no one ever leave here hungry,” Shannon said.
Tea service starts with one pot of tea per guest. There are over 80 varieties of tea from which to choose, from White Strawberry Basil to English Breakfast to Rooibos Cinnamon Apple — all helpfully categorized by level of caffeine.
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Every tea experience starts with a berry and nut salad, followed by a three-tier tray stacked with sandwiches and other goodies. Each guest gets to choose one full sandwich plus a half sandwich (so you can try multiple flavors), and it is indeed quite a bit of food. The sandwiches have a delightful homemade quality to them, and desserts are nicely varied. The tea biscuit served with Devonshire cream is a perfect bite.
For the Josephs, tea has been more than just a business opportunity. Shannon and Guerby moved to Florida from New York City in June 2020, just long enough after the pandemic started for them to realize they wanted to live somewhere less claustrophobic.
Shannon, who went to school for hotel and restaurant management, worked for hotels in Manhattan but started to get into tea after all that hard work led to health challenges. She saw a naturopath, who introduced her to the health benefits of tea: Turmeric is good for inflammation; ginger can help with digestion.
One day, she and Guerby went to a loose-leaf tea shop in the city, tried some teas, made a little date out of it. It planted the seed for their own tea business. In July 2020, after the big move, they launched an online tea store offering 20 blends they sourced and mixed themselves.
Like most small businesses, it was a grind in the beginning. They got to know the Tampa Bay area by selling at local markets, working other jobs while doing tea on the side. Within a year, they felt part of the community, with lots of repeat customers who told them their teas made them feel good, Shannon said.
The Josephs looked at retail spots they couldn’t afford before settling on the spot off U.S. 19, where they’ve built on their following and attracted new customers looking for a special-occasion experience: birthdays, corporate lunches, baby showers, teachers celebrating awards. Weekends are often fully booked with reservations. One day they had 30 walk-ins.
It’s quiet in the shop on a recent weekday, and Shannon is chatting with a mother and daughter who drove over from Davis Islands in Tampa for the afternoon tea. She’s telling them how her mom makes most of the food from scratch, and how their desserts change weekly: everything from mousse to tarts to more specialized options like peach gluten-free vegan scones.
“Running a small business is hard,” she said, “but talking to people and getting to know customers is the best part.”
These days, Shannon said she drinks most tea “for purpose,” like to help with pain. She is eager to spread the word about tea’s health benefits to her customers. If nothing else, she hopes to provide them with a calm environment for a unique experience.
“We wanted to do something where people could pause and just leave all the junk from the outside world aside,” she said.
If you go to Joseph’s Tea Room and Shop
The tea shop at 25028 U.S. 19 in Clearwater is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 352-679-1339. The tea bar at 1153 Main St. in Dunedin is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 727-788-1085. josephstea.com.