The Baker and the Tea Maker: A Collaboration Made in Ojai
By Zhena Muzyka
Over 13 years ago, when I was selling tea lattes off of a cart in Ventura, I served Kate Dunbar lattes in between her clients at a busy hair salon next door. We met again when I had graduated from the tea cart and grown Zhena’s Gypsy Tea into a national brand. She was inspired by my blends and started to bake them into cakes, scones, truffles and French macaroons. She started showing up with her signature smile and her amazing treats and my employees bum-rushed her every time she walked through the door with a tray of goodies.
Kate became a fairy-cake-godmother as she surprised my staff at our Ojai headquarters on long afternoons. Up until new management moved the tea company to Los Angeles, many of our weekly staff meetings were sweetened by her generous test batches of amazing desserts, infused with our teas.
Over the last few years, as I have allowed my roots to grow deeper into Ojai soil, I’ve also been writing a book about my experiences: from the first gypsy tea party at Meg’s Ojai House, to bringing belly dancers into Kroger stores in the Midwest, on to our first million in revenue, the quest to survive the recession, product launches and miraculous successes against the odds. I wrote about my global adventures in Biodynamic tea estates in Sri Lanka, the tea company’s amazing trajectory and all of the lessons I learned by taking a tiny Ojai cottage business into massive international distribution. My learning curve was like scaling the face of the Topa Topas, but every day there were breathtaking pink moments that affirmed our mission.
The book is called Life by the Cup and it chronicles many of my very hard lessons along the path of learning how to do business, how to be 100% fair trade, going Biodynamic, staying 100% organic and developing products that would break into mainstream grocery stores while still keeping creativity (palm reading demos with tea, anyone?), a heart of ethics and a mission to end poverty for tea workers in focus. The book features Ojai as the setting for most of my learning and blessings as this beautiful valley and its people have nurtured my heart, soul and mind with such warmth, friendship and support that there wouldn’t have been one single cup of tea sold if it wasn’t for this community.
Last year, I took a tour to Sri Lanka as I was launching a nonprofit organization (RobinHoodLaptopProject.com) and Kate Dunbar and her husband joined me. They witnessed the magic of the tea estate from which I’ve been sourcing tea for the last 12 years. They visited the Lakshmi temple where I was married seven years ago and they tasted the intoxicating, high-altitude teas within minutes of production. Kate texted me from the tea fields as she stood on a high hillside plucking tea herself among the workers. She understood firsthand the hard work of each tea worker and the importance of fair-trade practices to honor their labor.
I had dedicated so much of my life to the workers’ welfare and spent every day educating grocery store buyers on the importance of fair trade, and now my friend was transformed by the mission too. This catharsis brought our friendship to the next level, and many gifts were shared as we ate and sipped our way through the tea country.
When I was writing Life by the Cup, Kate and I started making recipes in her Petite Rêve Café in Ventura and I was able to convince my publisher to allow a few of them in the book. We included an Ojai Olive Oil Meyer Lemon cake infused with my Earl Greater Grey—which the book’s editor has made for her whole staff for their weekly editorial meetings. Not many memoir/business books have recipes, but I just knew that the collaboration would not only sweeten the stories for the reader, but showcase the organic friendship of two moms in the OjaiValley who love tea, food, fair trade and are always looking for a reason to gather and feed people.
A collaboration we call “The Baker and the Tea Maker” was born. I make the teas, and Kate bakes. Our goal is to help create more reasons for friends to gather and have tea parties, sharing stories, laughter and love.
We videotaped a lot of our baking antics while Kate taught me how to follow her recipes, and will be posting them when the book comes out. In December, we’ll have other recipes posted on my new website: ZhenaM.com. Sign up there for updates and we’ll be sure to give you more reasons to gather your friends for a pot of tea and some amazing Ojai love in the form of tea-infused desserts, savory dishes, cocktails and tea lattes.
Here’s to many more delicious collaborations!
Zhena Musyka is a purveyor of fine teas, a writer and a business consultant to local food companies. Her book, Life by the Cup (Atria/Simon & Schuster) is scheduled for release in June 2014. When she isn’t “playing in the dirt,” her description of growing herbs in her garden, Zhena is working on a second book, Business by the Cup, and advocating for fair-trade, organic and sustainable products.