Published August 12, 2022
By Kerry Clawson Akron Beacon Journal
Monaqui Porter Young, owner of the new SRINA Tea House & Cafe on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron, shows art of organic tea products that will be displayed on its walls. (Photo: Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal)
When you walk into the new SRINA Tea House & Cafe in Akron's Kenmore neighborhood, a huge, colorful mural runs down the entire length of the business's left wall, creating a bright scene of mountainous Sri Lankan tea fields, palm trees and vibrant, native Sri Lankan birds.
The back wall behind the tea counter is a rich green that coordinates with the verdant tea farm mural, which was designed by The Studio in New York.
"We wanted to transport the customer to a space that was green and natural," said owner Monaqui Porter Young, 50. "It's upscale but really warm."
Akron native Porter Young has opened her first brick-and-mortar establishment for SRINA tea, the organic tea company she founded in 2002 that offers 52 varieties of tea from Paradise Farm in the rain forests of Sri Lanka. Porter Young, who moved to New York in 1994, where she lives with husband and three children, developed her business there and has a background in integrative nutrition.
Lee Porter, left, manager of SRINA; Monaqui Porter Young, founder and owner; and tea associates Naomi Boyes and Nina Cameron stand in front of the mural inside the new tea house on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron. (Photo: Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal)
This week, SRINA Tea House will host a public soft opening celebration from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday. A grand opening will take place 4 p.m. Sept. 17.
The neighborhood has been anticipating SRINA's opening for so long, soft opening hours will continue 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday-Monday and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday as the business finishes up preparations for its grand opening.
Tea has long been Porter Young's passion. On Wednesday, she showed off some artwork depicting organic cinnamon and hibiscus that will adorn SRINA's walls, representing the natural, organic products that she's excited to bring to Kenmore with her teas.
Too many Americans think of tea as just Lipton, she said. All of the SRINA teas are loose-leaf and grown without chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides.
SRINA tea associates Naomi Boyes, left, and Nina Cameron work in the Tea Lab that will be available to patrons at the new SRINA Tea House & Cafe on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron. (Photo: Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal)
She's trained her employees on the history and health benefits of tea. For example, her organic green tea with a ginger-lemongrass-turmeric blend helps with inflammation and joint pain.
"We spend a lot of time telling you to taste the tea," said Porter Young, who encourages customers to drink the flavorful SRINA teas with no sugar or milk.
"Really good tea needs nothing but leaf and water. It's very simple," said Porter Young, a Central Hower High School graduate who earned a theater degree from Wright State University. "Just give us your palate and trust your palate to us. You're going to drink something you're not used to but this is tea."
She serves tea from glass teapots into glass bowls, rather than English-style tea cups with handles, so customers can see the tea they're enjoying.
"We love drinking tea out of a bowl," said Porter Young, whose SRINA logo features three tea bowls.
The SRINA property is owned by the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance (KNA), which gutted the space a couple years ago in preparation for a coffee shop tenant that ended up not signing a lease two days into the 2020 pandemic shutdown. The SRINA project was completed by contractor Tucker Building & Design of Wadsworth and AOA architectural firm of Florida, with lantern-type lighting by Lumen Nation in Montrose.
SRINA's exterior, which formerly had off-white vinyl siding when it was Zoe Ann's hair salon, now is back to its original brick exterior. The building, estimated to be about 100 years old, also features original hardwood flooring in the back half of the cafe and a refurbished wood counter.
Opening SRINA Tea House & Cafe has been two years in the making, sparked by a Rubber City Match Program grant of $50,000 from the city of Akron that allows small businesses to apply for cash awards, technical assistance, private loans and help finding empty storefronts in need of revitalization.
SRINA had been slated to open in December but the process of gaining additional funding delayed the project, said Porter Young, who needed to raise three times the initial Rubber City Match grant to see the project to fruition.
"Things took forever," said Porter Young, who said it took some work convincing private business lenders that a tea house would do well in the Kenmore neighborhood.
As the SRINA renovation project continued at 975 Kenmore Blvd., Porter Young started a pop-up cafe 18 months ago across the street inside the Rialto Theatre, which ran for about three months to establish a presence in the neighborhood.
The goal in choosing the predominantly working-class Kenmore neighborhood for the tea house was "to produce a revitalized Kenmore and create a place that would create value ― value to the community, value to the people and value to the other businesses and organizations," Porter Young said. "We couldn't do it without KNA."
The public-private partnership has been the key to bringing the unconventional tea house business to the community, the entrepreneur said, including the active participation and engagement of both the city of Akron and the local community, represented by KNA.
Tina Boyes, executive director of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, said that through the 2017 Kenmore Better Block program, the No. 1 thing residents said they wanted on Kenmore Boulevard was a coffee shop.
"This is the perfect opportunity to give Kenmore what it wants," said Boyes, who stressed that SRINA is a space where people of all socioeconomic backgrounds can connect.
According to a 2019 market study, the Kenmore Boulevard Retail Revitalization Strategy, a three-block area of Kenmore Boulevard can support up to four additional food and beverage businesses. It now has two, with SRINA as well as The Nite Owl across the street.
"We are hemorrhaging restaurant traffic," said Boyes. "People are leaving our neighborhood to eat."
Porter Young saw establishing SRINA Tea House & Cafe in a community underserved by restaurants and cafes as a good opportunity. In addition to serving food and drink in-house, SRINA offers a retail section of Sri Lankan teas and food ingredients, which include ginger, cinnamon honey spread, pineapple coconut chips and coconut chips.
Ginger chips will be sold at SRINA, a new tea house on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron. (Photo: Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal)
Porter Young is focused on hiring primarily women at SRINA. Tea associates are Naomi Boyes, Nina Cameron Jasmine Kirk, Jaquae Blair, Faith Perry and Stephanie Davis, all from Akron. Five of them have trained with the JOBS Culinary Program, a Kenmore nonprofit for at-risk young women ages 16 to 36 that teaches them culinary skills to manage a restaurant.
Lee Porter, Porter Young's cousin, is the manager of SRINA.
SRINA offers a breakfast and lunch menu, with food prepared off-site by Chef Glenn Gillespie of Edgar's in Akron. Breakfast items include lox bagel and tea or coffee ($7.90) and quiche with tea or coffee. Lunch choices include jerk chicken finger ($7.75), various salads and pulled pork sandwich ($7.25).
Sides range from vegetarian kale ($4) to quinoa ($4) and sweets include lemon and chocolate croissants ($3) and either champagne raspberry or passion fruit sorbet ($3). The menu is a soft-opening version that Porter Young expects to be tweaked.
Rotating organic coffees will include varieties from Brazil, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and U.S. cities such as Seattle.
One of Porter Young's goals for her business is to bring in 2,000 subscribers at SRINA Tea House & Cafe by December, a 12-month program that costs $200 per year or $16.75 per month. The subscription makes sense for those who eat and drink at SRINA regularly, she said. It includes special tea gifts, as well as events several times each month with food and drink. Customers can join the Tea Club for free at www.srina.com to receive information on purchasing a subscription, which starts Sept. 17.
Arts and restaurant writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@kclawson. Photos by Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal.
SRINA Tea House & Cafe
Soft opening event: 4 to 6 p.m. Friday
Location: 975 Kenmore Blvd., Akron
Additional soft opening hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday-Monday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday through Sept. 16
Grand opening: 4 p.m. Sept. 17
Information: 234-334-1599, SRINA Tea House & Cafe on Facebook, http://srina.com