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At her lowest point, Lincoln woman embraced the idea of high tea socials
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At her lowest point, Lincoln woman embraced the idea of high tea socials

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In this chaotic hustle-and-bustle, hurry-up-and-wait, fast-food world, sometimes a good cup of tea can slow things down and provide a necessary — albeit short-term — escape.

That thought came to Elizabeth Rieke-Hefley a little more than four years ago, amid her greatest bit of turmoil — a bout with ovarian cancer at age 34.

While making one of the many trips to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for chemotherapy, her mother suggested — no, insisted upon — a stop at a loose-leaf tea shop.

It seems Loretta Rieke had run low on her English breakfast tea.

And in that 10-minute transaction, a seedling took root.

“I was sitting in the car, waiting for her to get some tea and I kind of had this vision of doing something like this in Lincoln, a little oasis away from the chaos in the world,” Rieke-Hefley said. “There was a lot of chaos in my life, but the cancer did give me a chance to slow down a lot.

“It provided me some perspective.”

About 18 months later — with the cancer in remission — the Green Leaf Tea Co. opened in south Lincoln on a shoestring budget and not enough product expertise to fill one of the dozens of stainless steel canisters that hold the various kinds of exotic teas she sells.

Not a problem.

Rieke-Hefley is a sponge for knowledge, a child of academia whose father taught at both Princeton and Stanford. She earned a degree in biology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

She immersed herself on the subject of tea. What started as a hobby four years ago has blossomed into a level of sizable expertise, and a livelihood for a woman who wants to change the world, one sip at a time.

The small shop, which also has a sitting room, is meant to be inviting. She’s trying to create a sense of community similar to the one that helped her through her fight — one that she says saved her life.

She remembers neighbors and church members ringing the doorbell with dinner for her family — husband David and two teenage children — during their toughest times. And it forever changed her outlook.

“It was really a life-changing shift, not only the cancer diagnosis, but the whole community involvement,” she said. “That was part of the vision, that tea can be enjoyed with friends. You just sit down.

“That’s what I wanted for this store.”

But can tea compete with the American institution that is coffee? The multibillion-dollar industry has spurred the Starbucks generation by transforming an ordinary cup of joe into something more.

“I really think there is a place for tea in our culture, but I’m an old soul,” she said. “I do think there is a space for it. There is starting to be a shift away from that harried rush.”

Perhaps her greatest challenge is breaking all the norms and established rules that some might perceive regarding tea, a beverage that has cultivated a hoity-toity Old World demeanor.

“Tea can be whatever you want it to be,” she said, pointing to one silly rule about adding cream.

Apparently, there are certain kinds of teas that can “maybe tolerate a drop of cream, and other teas, according to the pompous, tell you that you’re not supposed to put milk in there,” she said. “I take the attitude that it’s your drink, your cup of tea, no pun intended.

“If it tastes good to you, who cares?”

The first rule of her tea club is there are no rules.

And perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than the monthly high-tea socials at the shop at 2917 Pine Lake Road.

The events epitomize both her reverence for tea and her willingness to bring a staid tradition into a more modern, user-friendly forum.

“It was just something in the back of my mind — something I wanted to do,” she said.

But rather than being traditional and filled with pomp and circumstance, Rieke-Hefley describes the high-tea socials as “quirky and random.” She went to the Goodwill store and bought several sets of mismatched china, which are used for the formal service.

“Everyone gets a different one,” she says with more pride than apology. “It’s a new old way of doing things. We don’t have an old Victorian house here that’s refurnished. All the table settings don’t match. The food is not proper tea-time food.

“Things are edging a bit more on the modern.”

And that’s just the way she wants it. During last year’s Halloween high tea — yes, a Halloween high tea — she served sandwiches in the shape of coffins with the letters “RIP” etched in mustard atop each one.

The high teas have proven to be quite successful — perhaps because of their unconventionality. Their purpose is to simply give guests a chance to catch their collective breath, to provide a respite from the mile-a-minute grind.

“I want to slow down,” she said. “Sitting and slowing down is the point. … They can decide how long they want to stay. Some have been in and out in 40 minutes. Others stay for two hours. It depends. It’s supposed to be conversational. I try to envision it making people feel special and fancy.”

It was an idea she wanted to try. Like the store itself, Rieke-Hefley says her battle with cancer has made her fearless regarding taking chances with her business.

“It’s very freeing,” she said. “The threat of failure is not near as daunting. It’s like who cares? 

“If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I have fun with it.”

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