We know businesses have been hurting during the pandemic, but there's a creative and resilient spirit among Alberta entrepreneurs that is cause for celebration. Take Jolene Brewster, for example. The self-described "Alberta girl, with hospitality in my blood" (who is also a passionate horsewoman, long time market vendor and former Calgary Stampede Queen) is putting all the character and charm of her successful tea company into a newly-opened retail store, and working with fellow Banff businesses to showcase them all.
"COVID-19 has created a demand for health and wellness products, and desire for local products and artistry," said Brewster, whose over 15 years of tea-selling experience has seen her at 'literally thousands' of farmers' markets across western Canada, and via online and wholesale trade. "Opening our retail space and being part of the Banff community happened because people want to reconnect. Rather than staring at a screen, people crave sensory experiences again, to come in to a store or restaurant and have real conversations."
Though the woman-owned (with partner Jess McNally) business lost wholesale trade with area coffee shops and lodges during the pandemic, the entrepreneurs pivoted: their Banff spot is squarely focused on connecting with locals and the increasing number of Alberta travellers who stop in to the cozy, log cabin space to chat and sample a stress-relieving blend, a cinnamon plum favourite or a campfire smoke-inspired rooibos. Tea-related accessories and wares from other Alberta makers are here, as is Brewster's Stampede saddle and a photo depicting the history of Rocky Mountain tea houses. Comfortable chairs outside the log cabin even allow visitors to watch the world go by.
Jolene's Tea House is set in the historic Old Crag Cabin (circa 1890) on Bear Street (just off the town's main thoroughfare, Banff Ave), offering over 60 varieties of organic, small-batch, hand-blended teas. From caffeine-free health-focused options--with floral, herb or spicy notes--to classic green teas, Brewster said coming up with recipes is as fun as experimenting with cooking.
"Most people don't think about it, but you're pouring hot water and nothing else onto these ingredients. We're using best quality, sustainable ingredients--sourced locally as much as possible--to get the freshest flavours," she said.
Jolene's Tea House is the inspiration behind a Bear Street tea cocktail crawl, which uses unique tea blends in alcoholic creations at local restaurants: Three Bears Brewery, Hello Sunshine and The Bison among them. It's clever cross-promotion that Brewster says has been extremely well-received by tourists and locals alike. "We've had amazing response to our shop and the tea crawl--in the restaurants, it's the mixologists that are genius. They do their magic," she said.
Indeed, a Rooibos Collins at Three Bears Brewery (vanilla vodka, rooibos tea, strawberry puree and soda water) is a nod to the distinctive characteristics of the tea house's rooibos blend and a tip of the hat to another popular local business; Park Distillery. At Hello Sunshine, Banff's newest Japanese BBQ and sushi joint, a Matcha Colada with pineapple, rye, rum, coconut and matcha tea powder is a tropical knockout. And The Bison restaurant features a tea-infused Butterfly Collins cocktail with alpine dry gin, lemon and pea flower--sunshine in a glass.
It's been a slow climb back for locally-owned and operated businesses since the pandemic hit, as Canada/U.S. border closures and a brutal fourth wave of the pandemic meant that Banff-area hotels were only about 60 per cent full this summer. Leslie Bruce, president and CEO of Banff Lake Louise Tourism says businesses have struggled throughout 2020 and though "there's a slight improvement, we're still nowhere near 2019 numbers."
But Brewster isn't worried. Though Jolene's Tea House has had a mail order business for ten years, Brewster says it's a different experience for a customer to come in and sample the flavours (best-sellers include a wild blueberry rooibos and Spirit Lake tea with white pine, sage, and sweetgrass, sourced in Banff National Park).
"We keep it simple in the shop--no prepared teas for a quick takeout--because our vision is to share the beauty of the mountains--to lift spirits and offer connection to people and the land--through the simple, genuine experience of tea," she said. "I remember buying an amazing salt in a French market once, and that was the taste of France to me. People want that here in Banff too; to take a taste of the place home with them."