Well, that didn’t take long.
Barely a week after leaving as manager of This House of Books in downtown Billings, Gary Robson is already renovating a storefront in Red Lodge, where he plans to open a tea shop on April 15.
“In fact, that’s where I am right now,” Robson said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “We’re ripping up carpet.”
The new business, Phoenix Pearl Tea, is at 13 N. Broadway, right next door to what used to be Red Lodge Books & Tea, a store that Robson and his wife, Kathy, ran for 15 years. The Robsons closed the store last year, after Gary agreed to become CEO and manager of This House of Books, an independent cooperative bookstore that opened last fall at 224 N. Broadway in Billings.
As we reported last week, Robson stepped down from his position there last week, as part of a reorganization at the financially struggling bookstore, a reorganization that neither Robson nor co-op board members have felt at liberty to discuss in detail yet.
The new storefront in Red Lodge most recently housed Silver Run Veterinary Clinic and before that a gun shop, a dollar store and a grocery store, Robson said. It was an easy decision for him to open a new shop there, he said, because the landlord who leased the Red Lodge Books space to him owns the new spot, too.
“They were happy to deal with us,” he said. “We’ve been tenants of theirs for a long time.”
Gary Robson will be the CEO, Kathy Robson will be the CFO and Gwendolyn Gunn will be the general manager of the new store, named for one of the Robsons’ favorite tea blends.
“And because there’s a certain symbology to the word phoenix,” Gary Robson said, referring to the mythical bird that rises from the ashes to a new life.
The new shop has about 2,000 feet, much of which will be used for the seating area, to be known as the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern, for in-house consumption. There will also be two private rooms for playing games (Tuesdays will be game nights) or having small meetings. Robson said they will also be used for tea classes and tasting events.
They plan to have 80 to 100 blends the day they open and they will have a new blend every week, as they did at the old shop, he said.
Most tea shops tend to follow one of three models, Robson said—the British shop focused on tea cakes and fine china, oriental tea houses or shops that concentrate on medicinal teas.
“We are none of those,” he said. “Our goal is to simply get fresh, good-tasting, high-quality teas from around the world.” They will also be blending their own teas for serving in the shop and they will be selling bulk teas to restaurants and stores.
Opening on April 15, tax day, will also highlight what kind of place Phoenix Pearl Tea will be, Robson said, pointing out that most coffee shops are intentionally high energy, rather loud and with fast-paced music.
“Whereas tea places like this one are calm, relaxing, soothing. So by having our grand opening on tax day,” he said, “people can get those taxes sent off and then sit down here and relax.”
They will also have light food and a few old favorites in the tea department, including matcha, a powdered green tea they prepare in bowls and use in cooking (e.g., muffins), and two popular tea lattes—masala chai and London Fog.
They haven’t settled on hours yet, and Robson wasn’t even sure what time the grand opening would start on April 15. But he said there will be a ribbon-cutting in the morning, tea serving all day and a party in the evening.
Mostly, he said, it has been good to be back “home” in Red Lodge.
“It’s constant,” he said. “We can’t walk into anyplace in Red Lodge without somebody saying, ‘You’re back! Awesome!’ Just stopping in a restaurant, we get a stream of people stopping by our table.”