Following 13 years of selling tea blends locally without a brick-and-mortar, Chad’s Chai has a permanent home in downtown Winston-Salem. Having partnered with now co-owner Thomas Lees along the way, the duo spent the last several years working towards making a local space a reality for old and new customers to enjoy the tea blends Chad Morris produces by hand. Rich in natural light, this beautiful, wide open, and kid-friendly location opened its doors in the old Chronicle building at 617 North Liberty St. 

Inspired by neighbors who held gatherings where they hand-blended chai tea on a stovetop, Morris was immediately captivated by the scents, taste, and overall process that went into the preparation. “He is much more an artist than a business person,” said Lees. “The artistry and creativity that went into creating that pot of chai were really appealing to him and he started working on it himself.” 

Morris learned quickly from his neighbors and, not long afterward, was blending chai tea for a friend’s wedding.     

While the groom had initially asked for one large pot of chai, he then proceeded to request small batches of chai tea for wedding party favors. At that point, Morris felt the urgency to nail down the original black chai recipe he had been working on, and during the process, had the owner of Finnigan’s Wake on Trade Street ask him to be his tea provider. Knowing he needed to be able to offer more than one tea option, Morris set down the creative journey that led him to make seven tea blends for the Irish Pub.

Having these first seven blends ready to go, Morris took a chance to see if there might be interest from other potential buyers in the area, going on to successfully sell locally for the next several years. During this first half of the story, Lees moved to Winston-Salem after marrying his wife, who went to church with Morris. The two men met, became friends, and during a hike Morris opened up to Lees about being able to use some help with the sales portion of the business, which Lees quickly volunteered for, becoming a partner during the following years.   


Chad’s Chai located in downtown Winston-Salem

An adjunct professor of religion at Guilford Technical Community College, Lees had no previous experience with sales, let alone tea sales. But he was drawn to the concept and jumped in headfirst. The partnership was fruitful and as the business continued to grow and do well, possibilities continued to present themselves, among them the options to open a physical establishment or begin bottling the product. Interested in both, the team only had the resources and the headspace to take on one of these projects.   

“Thinking about it, it was kind of a no-brainer that the tea house was so much more in line with our company’s values as far as community and wanting to have a space to share with people,” said Lees. “The tea house was something we were more passionate about. It’s exciting, it fits with us.” Well known in Winston-Salem’s Cobblestone Farmers Market, Chad’s Chai has loved being able to interact with the local community in that manner, and is committed to continuing to nurture those relationships in the most sustainable way possible with the teahouse.  

While the possibility of moving forward with bottling products down the road is not off the table, Lees is looking to focus on running the teahouse well, which it has without a doubt in the short time it has opened. The soft opening in early February, and the following days, brought in an unexpectedly high number of customers that took the teahouse by surprise. Having expected to serve a trickle of people, Chad’s Chai was slammed from day one, having to shut down for a day before the grand opening to get their feet back under. 

Amidst the excitement and challenges of getting the brand-new space running, opening the teahouse has felt similar to birthing a baby. The team jokes that Morris is the father, continuing to focus on wholesale, while Lees is the mother, spearheading the teahouse project. “We’ve got all of these relationships here locally and further out and we didn’t want to let any of our customers down just because we were trying to open a teahouse,” said Lees. “So Chad has kept that afloat and I have focused on this.”   

Finding the right spot for the teahouse was a process of roughly three to four years, and even before settling on the current spot, the team had already picked a different location elsewhere. But destiny is a funny thing, and upon a friend walking past the “For Rent” sign at the old Chronicle building, Morris and Lees ventured into inquiring about the downtown space, realizing that was the spot they were meant to be in. Initially fearful of having too big of a space with few people in it, the teahouse has been filling up with just the right amount of tea lovers.

The space has not only brought Winston-Salem’s downtown a fresh concept, but it has also allowed Chad’s Chai to set up its production space in the back of the house of the new business. Additionally, the teahouse has an event space in the back, as well, where Chad’s Chai plans to continue providing workshops ranging from the basics of tea to the history, to the different types of tea, and building teas. If this is not enough to lure more newcomers in, the teahouse also has a kitchen currently producing vegan pastries. 

Lees believed the teahouse would start much smaller and was ready to take on the necessary public relations and promotional tasks to bring awareness to the teahouse. It seems, though, that Chad’s Chai’s many years of selling teas locally has paid off on its own. “The diversity of people who have been showing up has been beautiful,” said Lees. “There is a thing with tea, and maybe it’s me coming from my own social position, but it can be a very white space, and I have just been so grateful it hasn’t been that.”  

As people continue to discover and frequent the teahouse with its skylights and gorgeous indoor greenery, Lees has plans to turn the available patio on the property into a tea garden of sorts. While there is no time frame for the project yet, there is no doubt that the patio will be as full as the front of the house. In the meantime, the teahouse hopes to grow big enough to where all of its employees can wear one hat, and enjoy wearing that hat while getting paid sustainably. 

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DALIA RAZO is a bilingual journalist, fine arts educator, and doctoral student at UNCG.

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