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Kelly Tisdale, far left, opened teany with Moby, the musician, but the shop is all hers now. It has 98 blends of tea and its own bottled brand, now for sale nationwide and overseas.
Kelly Tisdale, far left, opened teany with Moby, the musician, but the shop is all hers now. It has 98 blends of tea and its own bottled brand, now for sale nationwide and overseas. (Dina Rudick/Boston Globe staff photo)
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 NEW YORK FOOD TOUR: Tastes of the town

On Rivington Street, New York is a cup of tea

Email|Print| Text size + By Suzanne Strempek Shea
Globe Correspondent / April 9, 2006

NEW YORK -- There are many reasons for the success of teany cafe, a small treasure of a teahouse on the Lower East Side.

The whitewashed, sun-splashed space makes it a popular destination for grabbing a quick breakfast or settling in for an afternoon of tea and healthy grazing. The organic/vegan menu suits many a diet and palate, and selections including the vegan turkey club easily tempt the tastebuds of carnivores.

The dizzying array of 98 teas -- including some picked by monkeys and a three-flower burst as delightful to watch bloom while steeping as it is to drink -- is a big draw in itself.

Then there's the Moby factor. The electronic musician and tea-loving vegan cofounded teany (pronounced teeny) four years ago. Moby, 40, has sold an estimated 15 million albums in his 23-year recording career and fans flocked to teany when it opened to catch the rare glimpse of a music star busing tables.

Now, however, Moby has stepped away, leaving the teahouse solely in the hands of Kelly Tisdale, 29, his former girlfriend and teany's cofounder. The result is both a new menu and a fresh outlook for Tisdale, a native of Templeton, Mass., a little town between Fitchburg and Orange.

''It's scary and it's great," Tisdale admitted. ''I feel so much more freedom. It used to be I'd do everything in my power to make it work, then I'd feel guilty because it didn't. Now that it's just mine, it's literally an agent for my own happiness."

Between humdrum, behind-the-scenes office work and crouching at customers' tables to check their satisfaction with the four-berry cheesecake, Tisdale is logging 80 hours of ''happiness" each week. A recent unusually warm winter morning found diners filling the 35 tables in the 500-square-foot main space inside teany and the slim patio edging the sidewalk at 90 Rivington St.

Tisdale estimates she worked as a waitress in a dozen restaurants after growing up in a partially macrobiotic household and heading off to college. She attended Suffolk University and waitressed at Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square. After graduating in 1999 with a degree in international affairs and government, then spending a year bartending, traveling, and pondering a move to London, Tisdale moved instead to New York, landing a communications job at Human Rights Watch, the worldwide human rights organization.

''I was toying with the idea of going back to school to get a human rights degree. Then the towers fell," she said of the life-altering events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Tisdale had met Moby two years earlier and the pair started living together in lower Manhattan. The terrorist attacks led to them to think about opening a business that might help bolster the spirit of their beleaguered community.

In January 2002, they signed the lease for this space across from a synagogue, a tailor's shop, and a convenience store. Moby was on tour during much of the time it took to transform what once was a hair salon, and a dried fish and fruit shop. The teahouse opened that May.

In spring 2004, a line of bottled teas was introduced. In January 2005, a takeout storefront opened next door. Last May, ''teany book: Stories, Food, Romance, Cartoons, and, of course, Tea" (Viking) was published, timed to coincide with the release of Moby's latest album, ''Hotel." A website (www.teany.com) soon handled orders of tea blends, the bottled teas, and accessories including cozies, caddies, and cups bearing teany's golden orb logo.

The book continues to sell, and the bottled teas are available at the teahouse, and at 200 stores nationwide and overseas. The takeout closed in January, the same month Tisdale officially became owner of the teahouse and locked the door for two months as she adjusted the menu and schedule.

''The menu was too ambitious," Tisdale said of the offerings that had grown to include canapes delivered on tiered silver trays. ''A lot of it was my own expectation. I knew so much tasty stuff that was available. But we had no kitchen. This just needs to be a teahouse."

Since the switch to soups, salads, sandwiches, and baked goods, teany has drawn a steady stream of customers. On this morning, one table is taken up by teany fan Natalie Short, 20, and her fellow NYU student, and first-time teany customer, Jessi Ditillo, 19.

''I'm a vegan and I love tea, so it's a natural to come here," Short said as she waited for her vegan turkey club (Tisdale's favorite) and pot of the bestselling brew, Earl Gray crème.

Short also likes the ambience: the flickering candles; the Tisdale-selected soundtrack of Brian Eno, Lurk Nemesis, and Belle and Sebastian; and the very non-big-city friendliness of the staff. ''This place is really down to earth," she said.

Recognized or not, but given his space, author Richard Price walked in and ordered a skim cappuccino and banana walnut muffin to go.

Although Price brushed past her, Tisdale missed the moment. ''We get a fair amount of celebrities," she said. She figures that location and the allure of her former business partner play a role in that. She acknowledged getting frequent questions about Moby, who still stops in for his favorite green sea anemone and silver needle blends.

''His name will always be attached to it," she said matter-of-factly. ''It's expected with having owned a space with him."

Now flying solo, Tisdale's workload won't be lessening any time soon. The teany website, which includes her monthly newsletter and weekly blog, invites visitors to www.suburbstore.com, the site for two organic fair-trade coffeehouses in England that have begun to import teany goods.

As much as Tisdale finds happiness in her work, she also acknowledges that she hopes to achieve financial success. As part of her work in the human rights movement, she found that many people who sit on the boards that set the agendas for rights organizations are wealthy, successful business leaders.

Tisdale is neither. Yet.

''My focus now is to become as capitalist as I can," she said, ''so I can sit on one of those boards."

Contact Suzanne Strempek Shea, a novelist and freelance writer in Palmer, at sess7@comcast.net.

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