After leaving the world of engineering, Tariq Al Barwani and his business partner came to Toronto to open up a speciality tea bar. Located in Parkdale, Plentea has become somewhat of a tea lover’s paradise. Their business is focused on a no tea bag concept, each cup of tea is freshly blended and brewed to your liking. Al Barwani’s teas are inspired by his childhood growing up in the United Arab Emirates, where tea was a social drink. At Plentea, customers are encouraged to grab a cup and head upstairs where seats are aplent(ea).
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, what did you do before Plentea?
Before I started this business, I was in engineering, so very different. I moved to Canada in 2001, studied engineering at the University of Calgary and did that for 10 or 11 years before I started this business. It was great, but I wanted to do something a little more creative. Engineering is something a little more restricted so I wanted to get out of there and bring a little more wildness into the world.
How did you come up with the idea for Plentea?
We started off as most businesses do, as a totally different idea. We wanted to have little stalls in malls where you could pick up chai and snacks, something super simple, easy to maintain. But the idea blossomed from there because as I looked around Toronto trying to find a good place to have tea, I was really surprised that it was really hard to find. A lot of places you go just give you tea bags and the experience wasn’t great…let’s just go with that. You were expected to take your hot cup of water and tea bag and walk away without experiencing the true essence and tradition around it. So, there were only two options: the aspect of a to-go cup or something more traditional where you go and sit down in a tea house experience. I wanted to take something that sits in between where you can pick up a fresh cup of tea really quick, but you don’t have to sit and wait for it to steep. So Plentea provides you with a fast cup of tea, without sacrificing any flavour.
What makes Plentea different from other cafes?
Well, we wanted to get rid of the tea bag, we wanted to let people come in here and really see what’s in their tea. You know, loose leaves, spices, and you actually experience your drink and see what’s going into it. Let’s say you’re making a chai. You see the black tea, the chai blend that we use, you see the cloves, the milk. Everything is made right in front of you, there’s nothing hidden. There is no disconnect from you and your beverage. We wanted to let people experience the real way to make your tea. At Plentea we provide a totally different connection between you and your tea. It’s now something you come in and you enjoy with friends, you enjoy with your partner, or just for yourself, say I’m gonna take time off from the world come in and enjoy myself.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
We work with three local bakers that supply all the snacks. It took us a while to find them, they are really creative with the ingredients they use, they don’t use anything artificial, it’s fully natural. And that’s why you taste the difference in the flavour.
Have you experienced any challenges?
There were a lot of challenges to be honest. Everything from finances, all the way up to having to operate everything. I’ve worked in cafés before throughout university, so I kind of had a feel for how they ran, but when you’re actually responsible for one it’s a totally different game.
How did you balance all of the different aspects of running a business?
There are so many spinning tops that you have to watch and keep spinning. The first challenge we had was finances, it is a big capital expenditure to open up a place like this so we planned out and put away money every month. While we were doing that we were looking for people to help us out with design, concepts and architecture. So the challenge is to shift your thinking. When you’re doing a nine to five you’re responsible for a small section of business and when you go home, you go home, that’s it. But when you start a business you are responsible for every single thing, if something goes wrong that’s your fault, if it goes through that credit goes to you. The mental challenge is having to train yourself to accept full responsibility for the whole process and really understand what’s required.
What about now? Has it gotten easier?
As you go along, what was once a mountain becomes flat land and what was the sky is now your next mountain. Because the things that seemed impossible become more possible. You start to manage yourself a little better and learn to foresee solutions.
What is your vision for the future of Plentea?
We want to be on every single street corner in the city, in the province, in this country. I think we have a brand and service that is really, really needed. People come in and they love what we do, they love our tea, so we’re bringing something a little different to the city. Right now we’re in Parkdale which has been a great location so far, but it’s not really accessible to the whole city. So within the next five years we want to open up at least three more locations that are in key places of the city so that people can actually enjoy Plentea without people having to take the time to get here.
What is your favourite tea on the menu?
Actually, it’s not even on the menu! It’s a black tea with ginger and cardamom, and we steep that in a little bit of milk with sugar. It’s off-menu but it reminds me a lot of a tea I used to drink growing up. Whenever I drink it, it takes me back to being a kid. It reminds of family get-togethers, everyone having teas. Usually that’s the blend that they do, so it reminds me of having family and friends all around you, so that’s my favourite.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
We want Plentea to become a part of people’s daily life, a part of their routine. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to envision that for yourself.