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Meet the Tea Whisperer: An Entrepreneur Brews a Strong Business

How one woman turned her thirst for knowledge about tea into a beloved NYC shop and cafe offering delightful, healthful blends 

On St. Marks Place, in the forever bohemian East Village in NYC, there’s a tidy shop, lined with shelves of sleek metal canisters, filled with more than 200 varieties of tea.

On our Insiders Tour of Downtown NYC, NextTribers will be visiting Ilana’s cozy, comprehensive tea shop. More details about the trip here.

Called Physical Graffitea, it’s the domain of Ilana Malka, a self-taught tea connoisseur who, for the past 13 years, has been dispensing tea leaves and wisdom to regular customers and curious passers-by.

Read more: Time to Fly: Diary of an Old Aerialist

An Entrepreneur Is Born

Ilana grew up in a coffee-drinking household in Israel but was an intrepid traveler from her teenage years onward. A visit to New York soon led to her living in the city, first working for a credit card company and then opening what had been her dream: a second-hand clothing shop in the Village. Opened in early 1995, the boutique was in a classic tenement-style building with a unique provenance. It was the cover image of the iconic Led Zeppelin album, “Physical Graffiti,” and she grabbed that name for her store.  

As she was happily tending to her business and traveling to collect new finds, she also embarked on her adventures in tea. There were a couple of tea and herb shops around her neighborhood, which she loved exploring, and the idea of opening a shop of her own took root. She dove into learning about the properties of different teas, both through reading and talking to those in the know. 

For instance, an aunt had advised her about the best teas to optimize fertility and pregnancy when she had her daughter, now 18 years old.  So enamored with tea was she that friends began calling her the Tea Lady, because she always seemed to be toting various types in her bag.

Friends began calling her the Tea Lady, because she always seemed to be toting various types in her bag.

She started searching for a location somewhere in the city to open her own tea café where she would also offer herbs. A suitable space was hard for this entrepreneur to find, despite looking uptown and downtown.

But then, about 13 years ago, something both little and large happened. Bed bugs! New York City headlines were all about these tiny, gross-out, blood-sucking bugs, leaping from people’s beds onto their clothes and then landing on movie-theater seats, coatrooms, and elsewhere around the city. Fear of clothing that was for sale swirled, and Ilana found it exhausting to constantly clean her store and its wares to ward off insects.

Brewing a New Business

That was it: Ilana decided to draw the curtain on her clothing business and reinvent it as a tea shop, sharing her passion for this age-old beverage. The challenge of what to name it was solved by her young daughter and an employee, who hit on the idea of keeping “Physical Graffiti” as the name with a simple, symbolic shift to “Physical Graffitea.”

With its endless offerings, both to take home or have on premises, and Ilana’s knowledgeable guidance, the business has flourished. All tea comes from the camellia senensis shrub, she explains, and different parts of the plant– bud, flower, leaf–at different stages of its growth account for the six key categories of tea. 

These are green, yellow, white, Oolong, black, and pu-erh (the most aged or mature variety). Ilana also sells herbs and herbal teas. Gazing at the labels on the canisters can feel as if you are reading poetry, as names like Old Tree Silver Needle, Wild White Tea Buds, and Green Dragon Pearl Jasmine float before you.

All tea–green, yellow, white, Oolong, black, and pu-erh–come from the camellia senensis shrub, she explains.

You can take a seat at Physical Graffitea and enjoy sipping one of these delicious and fragrant teas; Ilana herself cycles through a variety of teas in a given day. Matcha (green), white, black. She loves it all. She recommends everyone try a cup of pu-erh tea in the morning: “You don’t have to quit your coffee. Just add it to your routine. It’s dark and smooth, like coffee, but not bitter or full of acid, and it really helps your digestive system. You just may start to crave it.” (She offers a Scottish Toffee blend with hints of caramel and almond for those flavored-coffee cravers.)

A Different Kind of Cuppa

tea shop nyc
Malka in front of her shop.

People come from all over the city and beyond to snap up her signature blends for a health boost. All the white and green teas are popular, thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and B vitamins. Among the favorites with women at midlife and beyond are her BeauTea Skin Tonic, rich in organic elderberries, rosehips, and hibiscus for immune support and glowy complexion benefits; her Green Herbs blend, an iron-rich concoction of holy basil, nettle, lemongrass, and more; and maté, an herbal tea popular in South America, with an energizing jolt of caffeine for days that are dragging.

Need to chill out? Ilana has plenty of options, from naturally caffeine-free rooibos to Deep Purple–herbs like chamomile and ashwagandha, blended on-premises and designed to calm and relax.     

Process is as important as her lovingly procured ingredients, she says. She learned that the temperature of the water can affect the tea, as can how long it steeps. She admits that, years ago when she first began drinking tea made with raspberry, nettle, and dong quai (aka female ginseng) for fertility, she probably should have let it brew longer. It’s also vital to use herbs that are fresh, so the medicinal properties in their oils can be released, versus getting dried out.

“People think green tea is bitter, but they are probably just brewing it too long.”

In monthly classes or off the cuff, Ilana advises her customers on proper brewing, handing out small cards with guidelines about the temperature of the water and how long to brew. “People are fascinated to learn the right way to do it,” she says, quite possibly because most of us are doing it wrong. “They often think green tea is bitter, but they are probably just brewing it for too long–it only needs one to four minutes at most–and with water that’s too hot. It shouldn’t be more than 185 degrees.” How would you know? She recommends keeping a kitchen thermometer handy to help brew the perfect cup.

With Physical Graffitea, Ilana has created her own unique blend of a business:  a place to get away from the hurly-burly of city life, to partake of a time-honored ritual, and to explore an endless panoply of flavors and scents. It’s quite an achievement for a woman who grew up with a coffee mug in hand.

Read more: I Quit Drinking as a 60th Birthday Present to Myself

By Janet Siroto


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