Hard work and determination have led Erica Swanson, the owner of a fast-growing Portland tea empire to realize her dreams in the Pearl.
When Erica Indira Swanson, the force behind Tea Bar (1055 NW Northrup St, 503-227-0464, drinkteabar.com), was 11 years old, she and her father, John, biked across France together. To prepare, they trained all around Portland from their home in Northeast, eventually logging 50 miles a day. “He’d put phone books in our pannier packs,” remembers Erica, to simulate the weight they would carry on the actual trip.
Swanson counts the adventure among the formative experiences in her upbringing that fostered determination, preparation, and work ethic, not to mention plain old fun—all qualities that she draws upon each day as she builds Tea Bar into a bourgeoning empire, with four locations and counting. She’s accomplished this admirable feat before her 27th birthday. And among all of her shops, she says it’s her third location—in the Pearl’s sophisticated Cosmopolitan residential tower—that’s been her “ultimate” achievement. “When I opened the first Tea Bar, it was my dream to be in the Pearl,” she explains.
Swanson launched her first location in December 2014, not long after she returned from a stint living in China. She’d first traveled there as a high school exchange student, at the behest of her dad, who thought it would be helpful for her to learn Mandarin. While in the far-northern city of Jiamusi and then in Beijing following her graduation, her lifelong love of tea deepened. Upon her return to Portland, she began working with her father in their family-run apartment management business, Little Beirut Properties. She and her dad together bought and renovated the NE Killingsworth Street building in which the first Tea Bar would be born.
At the time, she was 23 years old, and she recalls that it was not at all clear to her that the business would succeed. Her total prior experience in food service consisted of working as a dishwasher and food runner at the Mexican restaurant Por Qué No as a teenager. And the first few months were “pretty mellow,” she says.
But she had a clear concept in mind: “I wanted to create a space that was modern, simple, and focused on product, and also on the interactions of the people inside. At that time in Portland, I felt like there were a lot of places that were cluttered with so many things that were put there without intention,” she says. Swanson, who’s of Swedish heritage, channeled Scandinavian minimalism to inform not just her brand’s aesthetic but also its philosophy. “I wanted the menu to replicate the idea that less is more, offering a concise selection that doesn’t overwhelm customers.”
Within six months, she was in the black, and soon she was fielding requests from brokers, building managers, and—most important—customers encouraging her to expand to more central locations.
As Swanson’s business grew, she also began doing some growing of her own. When she opened the first Tea Bar, she lived above the shop—and she also still pitched in with her family’s business. About a year-and-a-half later, while opening her second location on SE Division Street, she decided to leave the nest—and the neighborhood she grew up in—and try something different. “I was attracted to the Pearl—the walkability of the neighborhood, the high quality of the units in its buildings, and the central location. I could get to my shops in 10 to 15 minutes,” says Swanson. Once she moved into the neighborhood, she became enamored of the green spaces for her dog, a Havanese named Ponyo— especially The Fields and Tanner Springs.
She soon became aware of a retail opening in the new Cosmopolitan tower and immediately decided to open her third location there. Just 24 at the time, she also realized that opening in such a prominent location required a huge commitment. “To take on a 5- or 10-year, million-dollar lease, at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s kind of like a marriage. But it’s even more serious— It’s not like you can divorce a lease.”
“I wanted the menu to replicate the idea that less is more, offering a concise selection that doesn’t overwhelm customers.”
The bold move to open in the Pearl location proved to be a fortuitous one, and it’s enabled Swanson to expand further with a fourth location, which just opened in August, downtown at 750 SW 9th Avenue, right by Nordstrom and Director Park. She’s now thinking about eventually opening a branch in Seattle. “In the Pearl, we benefit from the density of the neighborhood,” she says. “We’re south-facing, so we get such beautiful natural light, and we’re right on the streetcar line.
In fact, it’s all worked out so well that Swanson has herself recently moved into the Cosmopolitan building. “I know it seems crazy to live above your shop,” she says with a laugh, “but I have an amazing team in my Pearl location, as I do in all my shops. I’m never worried about having to run down there.”
“Plus, I absolutely love this building—it’s so Scandinavian and high-quality and efficient.” In both her work and her personal life, Swanson sounds both grateful and excited. “The Pearl neighborhood is such a dream come true.” –Alison Stein | Photos by Ashley Anderson