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Not just a cookie-cutter job

April 14, 2009

Packaged Lemongrass & Ginger

My inbox delivered some sad news to me this morning.  My lovely friends and former colleagues at Amai Tea & Bake House (also known as Lovescool) have decided to close up shop…this weekend.   It is with a heavy heart that I write that.

This came as a heartbreaking surprise, leaving me to feel a bit dazed and confused.  If the effects of this economic disaster hadn’t been evident enough, then this just made it crystal clear.  What else does a small business owner have to do to survive?  In it’s young life, Kelli and Andrew have managed to make quite a name for Amai, with loads of adorers, followers and regulars from all over the world to solidify their efforts.  Add to that many awards and accolades from their peers that they have accumulated.  It just doesn’t make sense, except for the fact that we are living in uncertain times. 

I imagine that this wasn’t an easy or pleasant decision to make.  And knowing Kelli, was not made without exercising every possible option and route available.  Yet, I truely hope they know that they have only fallen victim to a poor economy, like so many other business owners facing the same fate.  Unfortunate, nonetheless.

Lemongrass & Ginger Green Tea Chai Earl Grey & Currant

However, Amai was not just another business to me, and Kelli was just not another boss.  I have wonderful memories of days spent in a less-than ideal commercial space in Queens, making heaps of cookie dough in a larger-than-life Hobart mixer, cutting endless amounts of cookies one by one with delicate little cutters, then packaging all these little gems in tiny cellophane bags and sealing them with a sticker and lots of love. 

Kelli and I met through her blog Lovescool.  I stumbled across it through an unlikely avenue, Craigslist.  [During my stint in NYC, I devoted alot of time to this particular website.  It became more of a resource for finding out the ongoings of the food scene and anything else that was breaking in real time in the city.  Remember this was years before twitter.]  There happen to be an ad for a part-time baker in the job section with enough information to lead me to Amai’s website, which was really just a home page directing traffic to Lovescool.  This was my first meeting with a blog or at least that I had known of.  Immediately, my attention was captivated and the hours spent reading every word just flew by.  But oddly enough, the reason that I struck up conversation with Kelli was not about the job at all, rather a posting on Lovescool regarding her split from her business partner.  Something about the post resonated with me, and I felt I needed to contact this stranger, who no longer felt like a stranger but a friend who had managed to keep me reading through her entire site in one sitting.  And with that one email began what has been a three year professional and personal friendship.

Most days it was just Kelli and I and the kitchen assistant Michael working diligently in the sweltering summer heat, only made more unbearable by all of the ovens in use.  Unless it was in the thick of winter and the  ovens were our oversized, much-clung-to heaters.  Then there were the special days, when we needed help and called in reinforcements.  This group was made up of several intelligent, diverse, lovely women who all happen to be Lovescool fans and foodies of sorts.  They had full time jobs doing things that paid much more (like Kelli and I once had), yet chose to spend their weekends (and some late nights) hanging out with us in the kitchen.  For the love of baking.  For the love of being a part of such a special opportunity.  And eventually (or at least for me), for the love of being with such knowledgeable, fun-loving people who sought refuge in each other in what can be a very harsh city.

Viv & Colleen Janice

Even though the working conditions were less than perfect, the communal environment allowed us the opportunity to connect with other fellow foodie entrepreneurs who made everything from gourmet dog treats, southern cakes, chocolate covered pretzels, hummus and pickles.  If nothing else, it definitely made for an interesting mix of fragrances in the air.

After becoming Amai’s official CBO, I continued to watch Kelli’s vision manifest through lots of hard work and determination.  We set up displays and booths at Henri Bendel’s, The NY Coffee & Tea Festival and the World Tea Expo.  Our products could be found in the likes of Dean & Deluca, Takashimaya, and Ito En, as well as, coffee and tea shops around the country.  The business was growing, and we had grown out of our kitchen space.  The obvious next step was a store front.  And so, in October 20007, Amai officially opened their doors to much acclaim!

NYC Coffee & Tea Expo World Tea Expo Henri Bendel

Today has been a day of reflection for me.  Remembering all of the times spent with Kelli in and out of the kitchen.  All of the heart to hearts we had related to my life and hers.  She  allowed me to live vicariously through her as she pursued her dreams, knowing all along that I, too, have similar goals and aspirations.  That’s the other reason that this is so difficult to understand.  How can something you put every ounce of yourself into – mentally, physically, emotionally, financially – still not work out?  It’s a bit disheartening.  Yet with that said, I have absolutely no doubt that she will turn this into something even greater than it’s former self.  And I can only hope that means that our paths will somehow cross again. 

Here’s to Kelli, Andrew and the entire Amai gang, past and present.  I commend you on taking the risk and making a tremendous impact on me and so many others.  I can’t wait to see what the future holds…

NOTE:  If you’re in the New York area, be sure to stop by this weekend.  They will be selling everything at fabulous prices.  Who can pass up $1 cupcakes, Organic, Fair-trade Coffee and the finest teas.  Go see ’em…

Amai Tea & Bake House
171 3rd Avenue
(bw 16th & 17th)

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