lias Majid didn’t expect to end up in food, let alone as one of the power players on Detroit’s increasingly cool food scene. In college, the Michigan-native majored in botany. But as his research in plant biology neared its end, he came to the realization that a tea shop would be the best way to connect real people to “plants, nature, science, and health in an everyday way.” So he opened one.
Majid started selling Eli Tea at Detroit-area farmers markets and local cafes in 2013. Two years later, he opened Eli Tea Bar in Birmingham, Michigan, with a roster of 80 different teas and tisanes. He’s since grown the shop to include 120 varieties of loose-leaf tea, a staff of nine, and a robust wholesale business, with plans to expand to a second location in downtown Detroit sometime in the next few years. The shop also serves tea-based lattes, bubble teas, kombucha on tap, and a small menu of food like wraps, salads, and baked goods. But for Majid, Eli Tea Bar is more than a cafe — although it’s definitely that, too — it’s a way to introduce his community to tea and all its health benefits.
Majid takes his role as tea evangelist seriously. “We’re the ones that have to create healthy options. We’re the ones that have to educate the customers and get them on the right track,” he says. “I think food businesses do more than a doctor might on an everyday level.” In Detroit, Majid’s mission feels particularly profound. “Michigan has one of the highest obesity rates, but here we are,” he notes.
The botanist-turned-tea purveyor continues to blend all of the tea at Eli Tea Bar himself, and he makes every loose-leaf blend without high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. Supply line transparency is also key to Majid’s mission — Eli Tea Bar doesn’t carry any tea from Sri Lanka because tea from that country is sold at auction, leaving no opportunity for workers to have upper-level involvement — as is education.
Eli Tea Bar hosts educational tea tastings that allow Majid’s scientific background to shine. But to make quality tea an everyday part of the lives of the people in his community, Majid has learned to learn from his customers. “One thing I’m really working at is trying to figure out what American tea is. What kinds of tea do Americans want to drink?” he says. And by talking to his customers, Majid has found the inspiration for some of the shop’s best-selling blends: Majid devised the Green Green Ginger tea after a sick customer requested something caffeinated, spicy, and full of antioxidants. And Eli’s signature Traverse City Cherry Festival tea was created expressly with locals in mind. “It’s something they can envision,” Majid says. “Traverse City is a meeting place for many, and it’s something they can relate to.”
His interest in the community and the varied menu with something for everyone means that locals also love his cozy shop in Birmingham, which has been called a great place to work, study, and catch up with friends by Eli Tea Bar fans.
By injecting familiarity into the teas he crafts and sells, Majid hopes to secure the future of tea in this country. “I think the key to success for the American tea industry is going to be defining tea on its own terms here in the United States,” he says. In addition to carrying tea grown in America, Majid has Americanized tea tasting terms at his shop. “I prefer to say the tea has a rain aroma over the tea is muscatel in flavor, because no one knows what a muscat grape is,” he explains.
Tea today, Majid says, is “where wine was in the 1970s,” and Majid is at the forefront of the movement to change the way Americans engage with the healthful beverage, beginning with his own diverse community in Michigan. He says, “If you are white-American, if you are Chinese-American, if you’re Indian, you all might drink a different type of tea, but it’s our job to find that perfect tea for you.”