The Birthplace of a Beverage

At the Honeysuckle Tea House, customers can stroll through tea fields while sipping on the harvest.
At the Honeysuckle Tea House, customers can stroll through tea fields while sipping on the harvest. Erica Naftolowitz

What where your drinks come from say about who you are as a brand.

It’s an old motto in marketing that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This impetus to tell your brand’s story is increasingly being told by describing where a restaurant’s food and beverages come from. When well executed, the emphasis on sourcing is not just a novelty, it’s a language through which to express both tangible and intangible aspects of what your restaurant represents, and beverage menus provide fodder to tell that story eloquently.

As you drive through the gnarled wooden gates of the Honeysuckle Tea House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, you start to feel as though you’ve wandered into some sort of panoramic dreamscape where the breeze is always flowing and there’s always a lazy dog or two lounging by the pond. It’s hard to tell if the smells of lavender, mint, and tulsi are coming from the raised beds brimming with herbs to the right, or from the teas, smoothies, and syrups being mixed and served to the customers relaxing inside the open-air wooden structure sitting atop a handful of aging storage containers. Amidst such an interweaving of the senses, the environment of the Honeysuckle Tea House and the drinks served there cannot be separated—which is part of the point, really.

“We wanted to open a space where we could have the plants and herbs available to people not only in packaged form, but available in a tangible way so that they could walk around and smell them and interact with them,” owner Tim Toben says.

At the Honeysuckle Tea House, nearly all of the ingredients within the jars of tea lining the wall behind the register can be found on-site—from the traditional Camellia sinensis tea leaves (which are growing by the acre in plain view) to the elderberries and herbs that find their way into many of the blends. Guests can also find pastries and coffee from local purveyors.

By interacting with the ecosystem in such a transparent way, the Tea House has become something of a singular eco-system in it’s own right—a place that Toben says people visit both “as a place to get away to, and really a place to arrive at.” This is local sourcing at its most tangible extreme, and by tying the end products so strongly to its singular sense of place, the Tea House has managed to create a phenomenon that has transformed a stop for delicious and thoughtfully crafted beverages into a destination. Now in its second year of operation, the venue has already doubled its first-year profits.

“It’s far surpassed our expectations,” Toben says. “It’s really been a pretty surprising reception to these local drinks coming from local plants—basically, it’s those local elements being converted and expressed as the drinks we serve.”

Resident herbalist Rachel Zingone says she sees how the proximity of sourcing affects customers everyday. “Really it’s a sensory experience where you can just see and touch and smell the plant when it’s growing—not just when you’re having it in your beverage,” she says. “And that’s huge for people, because it makes it much more real and accessible.”


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