Updated: Oct 20
“The Kenmore neighborhood in Akron is amazing. It's so beautiful with its wonderful jazz and Caribbean and Latin culture,” said Monaqui Porter Young, Proprietor of Akron’s SRINA Tea House and Cafe. The tea house is the first brick-and-mortar location for Porter Young’s SRINA, an online wholesale and retail organic tea company she founded in 2002. The tea house opened in 2022. "People in underserved communities get nervous when a nice new store opens up in their neighborhood because they know, historically, those stores aren't moving in for them. I did a pop-up in the area even before we opened to let the community know, 'we are here for you.' We're here to revitalize, not to gentrify because although I live in New York City, Akron is my hometown, and I'm proud of that," she said.
SRINA gets its teas from Sri Lanka, a country Porter young fell in love with decades ago. "I was a theater major and got invited by The United Nations to put on my one-woman show in Sri Lanka for International Women's Day. I was inspired by the natural beauty but struck by the poverty at that time in 2002. I got invited to Paradise Farm, and I was so drawn to these incredible women tea farmers. I took a year to learn the soil, composting, and farming and decided to import tea from here. I partnered with an NGO, and we sold ecologically-sustainable, organic teas, paying these amazing farmers a fair price. The tea tastes so good because we know the soil and the area where we farm. Now, through SRINA Tea House and Cafe, I’m able to customers they are changing the lives of impoverished people in Southeast Asia through buying their products," Porter Young said.
"I would rather work with a community-based company like ECDI. We were lucky to have a partner that believes in our company to support us and help fund us."
Although the tea house has been popular with Kenmore residents, Porter Young had difficulty convincing investors that an organic tea house in an underserved community was a viable concept. “They told us we'd be lucky to get two customers per day, but we've had days with a hundred. I'm happy to say our customers spend an average of $11.79, and our number one seller is tea, not coffee. Our projections were right because we know the area,"
Porter Young said."
Porter Young was able to secure funding, partially through the Rubber City Match Grant, a $50,000 award from the city of Akron coupled with a loan facilitated by ECDI. “ECDI has been with me since the inception, helping with loans, the business plan, and all the impossibilities of making this place a reality. I would rather work with a community-based company like ECDI. We were lucky to have a partner that believes in our company to support us and help fund us," she said. Porter Young got over $100,000 in loans through ECDI, an unusually high amount. "Every analyst would look at metric dots and say Kenmore had to be gentrified first for this to work, but ECDI understood my vision. They knew I wanted to service the current residents of Kenmore. It was great timing for us to find a partner like ECDI because I could be pure and honest about what I wanted this to be," she said.
Porter Young wanted to ensure that the tea house was part of the community, even down to the workers. “I’m dedicated to investing in the neighborhood. Even training experienced servers takes time, but it’s paid off. The staff has been amazing," she said.
Local residents of all ages enjoy coming to SRINA for healthy food and drink options and
having a place to meet. SRINA is across from a senior center, and regularly hosts bingo nights to educates seniors about the benefits of their teas and eating healthy foods "It's just a wonderful atmosphere. Even for seniors who say, 'I don't want eat nothing healthy.' They're coming in just to have fun. It's a gateway," Porter Young said.
Porter Young is already looking to what's next. "We applied to accept WIC and the food stamp card. We're excited to incorporate technology. We've always had a tea club, but we're looking to install kiosks and track customer data and feedback. We'll also use it to educate on holistic health.
Porter Young returns to Akron often with her husband and three children. "I've had the fortune to take my kids to Sri Lanka. They've planted tea in the rainforest. They have also been a part of Kenmore. My kids come on this journey with me,” she said. This tea house was really my way of being able to impact the health of my family and the community.”