Q&A: SRINA Tea House & Café General Manager Lee Porter

Lee Porter is the general manager of SRINA Tea House & Café located at 975 Kenmore Blvd. His cousin, Monaqui Porter-Young established SRINA Organics in 2002 and spent the past 20 years distributing organic tea grown in the rainforest of Sri Lanka before officially opening her first brick and mortar tea house last month.

An East Akron native, Lee spent the majority of his career in sales and began working with Monaqui about seven years ago to learn the tea business and help run SRINA-catered events in Ohio. When he’s away from the tea house, Lee loves to hike and although he’s not a musician himself (though he tells us he’d like to think he can sing), he loves Kenmore’s rich musical identity.

We sat down with Lee to not only learn a little bit more about him and SRINA Teahouse & Café, but what he thinks makes Kenmore Boulevard unique.

What led to you managing SRINA Tea House & Café? It started with the first sip of tea. Monaqui came to visit after she was a few years into the SRINA Organics online business and I tried her tea and it was the first tea I ever had without sugar in it and I didn’t want to put sugar in it. After I learned where it came from and what she was doing I knew I had to be a part of it. I began learning more about the tea and helped run the SRINA-catered events in Ohio at restaurants, ballrooms, hotels, etc.

I also got to engage with people about an organic, natural product that I believed in. Coming from years in sales that was important. I had to feel like I could stand behind what I was selling.

Now a half dozen years later and we have our first physical location here on Kenmore Blvd. and there are tentative plans to open a second one in The Bronx, as well as offers to open in Harlem and/or Brooklyn.

While you were waiting for construction work on your current building to be finished, you opened inside the Rialto Living Room in 2021. What was that experience like?

The opportunity to operate in the Rialto was a valuable learning time that we appreciate. Being able to have a presence here and run almost like a test kitchen was really important.

What’s the most popular item on SRINA’s menu?

Hands down the Jerk Chicken. Whether as tenders or in a salad or wrap it’s definitely our most popular offering.

What makes SRINA unique?

The food items. We’re bringing healthy food and drink options to a community that might not otherwise have a whole lot of health-conscious dining options.

What’s the most rewarding thing about managing SRINA?

I’m a people person and I like being in a people-driven business. Engaging with customers and seeing they’re happy eating food that’s good for them and tastes good. It’s a win-win.

What is the biggest challenge you have to overcome and how are you managing it?

Inventory and making sure we have the things that are going to sell. Not having too much or too little of anything and managing expectations. It’s a constant work in progress, but we’re proactive about gathering feedback from the community and seeing how we can improve.

Tell us about a time when a customer made you feel like a million bucks.

It’s not just one time, it’s every time I see the way customers respond to the space and the calming ambiance here when they cross the threshold of the front door. Couple that with how they then react to our tea and food and it’s a great feeling.

What are you most proud of?

The reception we’ve had. We’ve been received really well and that is priceless.

What was your background leading up to your position at SRINA?

Mostly sales. I worked at Levin Furniture and Elgin Furniture as a salesperson. I also worked at RED the Steakhouse in Cleveland. We’d have Cavs players like LeBron James and Tristian Thompson and players from other professional teams as guests often. So that experience helped me learn to handle high volume and high expectations in the food service industry.

What’s something people don’t know about you?

I love to hike. Sand Run Metropark is my favorite spot.

What’s something you’re learning that people don’t know about SRINA?

We have a large mural that completely covers one of our walls and it’s a rendering of Paradise Farm in Sri Lanka which is where all our tea comes from. Most customers think it’s just a pretty piece of scenery, but it’s actually a depiction of the farm where every drop of tea we serve comes from.

There’s actually a nice parallel between Paradise Farm and SRINA Teahouse and Café. The farm employs all the women from the village and we’re doing the similar thing here in Kenmore by hiring 18-35 year old women from the community through the JOBS program.

Why did Monaqui choose to open SRINA on Kenmore Blvd.?

The Rubber City Match Program allowed us to come into a neighborhood where we could be part of revitalization. We didn’t want to plug into a community already up and running. We wanted to be in a neighborhood on the cusp of a renaissance and actually help a neighborhood.

What should everyone know about SRINA?

We’re not just a company, or a place to get a cup of tea – we’re a lifestyle.

What do you love about Kenmore? What’s unique here?

The people are amazing. I haven’t met one bad person in this neighborhood. You hear stories about trouble from time to time, but those are things that can, do, and will happen no matter where you are.

What’s your vision for the Boulevard in 10 years?

Crowds walking up and down the street and visiting every unique and interesting business we have. I try to do all my business on the Blvd.

What do you see as Kenmore’s biggest opportunities?

The music obviously. It’s a unique place with all the recording studios and how great the live music is. It’s a lively music area.

What’s your favorite band or musician you’ve seen play in Kenmore?

A Band Named Ashes, Big Pop, Akronauts. The Summit FM brought Seratones to The Rialto and-they were amazing. I’ve seen a lot of really great music here.

Are there any specific musicians or bands you’d like to see play in Kenmore?

The Rialto and The Summit do a great job of bringing some acts in and I like to be surprised. I’ve never been disappointed.

Finally, what’s your favorite Kenmore Pizza?

Pierre’s – that Pizza is amazing! My favorite is the Bella Tia Maria.

SRINA Tea House & Café serves organic tea, healthy food, and delicious coffee Monday – Saturday from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m from its location at 975 Kenmore Blvd. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram for updates and more information.

And don’t miss the Fall Harvest Celebration at SRINA Tea House & Cafe October 27-29! RSVP Here

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