Small BusinessFeatures

When Love Is Not Enough

Selling a small business can be tough

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You create a small business that expresses your dreams. Then you try to sell it, and the dream becomes a nightmare. The reason, as Rice business school professor Scott Sonenshein explained to writer Claudia Kolker, is that you can’t count on others to love what you do. You have to be willing to mix your dream with reality.

The following originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle’s Grey Matters.

Chai Carol is distraught. Clutching a cup of lemon-myrtle infusion, she winks away tears. Te House of Tea is closing Thursday after nine years in business. "There's nowhere like it," murmurs the retired nurse, nicknamed by staff for her love of Te's signature brew. "This place is sacred."*

For its many devotees, the Montrose teahouse is a place where the inner life flowers. And oddly, it didn't succumb to flighty management or lack of cash. Instead, the haven that founder Connie Lacobie built for writers, artists and other creative souls will close because no one wants to buy her own creation.

"I'm tired," Lacobie says. "I'm prediabetic, and can't be on my feet all day anymore cooking. But I can't find anyone to buy it."

Roomier than most coffee shops, lit by windows facing Woodhead and Fairview, Te is designed to nurture depth of feeling along with enjoyment of tea. The tables are wide-set, because tea drinking ought to be relaxing, not hectic like drinking coffee, Lacobie says. The soundtrack, classical, alternative, or nonexistent, ensures visitors can hear their own thoughts. And the pace moseys, because alongside stalwarts like Chai Carol, Te indulges clients who spend all day wringing dregs from one pot of Oolong.

The formula has been an elixir for all sorts of artists. When the tea-drinking day draws to a close, Te fills again: with poets and ranters on Open Mic nights, swing dancers on weekends, anime nerds once a month. Nonprofits from Community Cloth, Children at Risk, Veterans for Peace and relief groups for natural disasters file in for near-constant fundraisers.

Yet its during traditional business hours that Te may be most interesting. On the first Tuesday of every month, breastfeeding mothers descend like cooing birds, thrilled at Lacobie's invitation to bring their babies out of the house. On other days, a committed eavesdropper can hear yoga instructors swapping life stories, a model-lovely couple whispering Bible lines, a gray-haired lawyer placing calls over lentil soup. Former staffer Alyssia Dieringer, a musician, admits to cadging a forgotten journal scrap left by a tea-drinking writer. She refers to it for inspiration.

And almost every afternoon, Chai Carol – full name Carol Barden – appears. Along with her tea, she always asks for the crocheted tablecloth she stores under the counter, which she spreads out for dates with friends.

So why can't this beloved place endure?

Because, at least in business, love isn't enough. Two years ago, when Lacobie finally decided to leave, she signed on with a broker. The teahouse turns a modest profit and pays staffers more than minimum wage, Lacobie says. But potential buyers all wanted a place with bigger profits and an industrial kitchen.

It was Lacobie's choice not to build one over the years, instead whipping up Asian-tinged salads and savory crepes from a kitchen roughly the size of an SUV. "These buyers can't see it," Lacobie says vexedly. "They want this to be a Chinese restaurant." But really, they just don't see the same thing. ''My goals, '' Lacobie says, ''were to create a place for the community, and a place to appreciate tea.'' For nine years that worked. But it's hard to fault someone else for wanting to create a business with robust profits.

Small and muscular, with brown bangs and an artist-style black chef's tam, Lacobie looks from a distance like one of the artsy millennials she always hires. Now in her 50s, she grew up in Hong Kong, where her father was a postal supervisor. When Britain's lease on Hong Kong expired, Lacobie and her family were among thousands who left. She enrolled at the University of Houston, where she met her husband, an economics major who designs websites. Not that Lacobie lacks her own business sense: she worked as bank auditor before quitting to care for her young daughter.

A few years later, Lacobie began to volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages, a fair-trade crafts shop. Encouraged by her boss, Lacobie struck out for herself, armed with a knockout chai recipe and the belief that even social-minded businesses should pay their own way. And for close to a decade, Te fulfilled her vision.

She might have done herself a disservice trying to continue that vision with a traditional buyer, says Scott Sonenshein, a professor at Rice Business. Sonenshein, a management specialist, speaks about Te from experience: He often stops by for informal meetings. Although it's tough, he says, Lacobie might have found longevity by forming a hybrid, a newly popular breed of business that mixes for-profit and social missions.

"Trying to sell a social vision," Sonenshein says, "is a lot different from trying to market a space purely for money. A new owner will have to be resourceful with what she built, finding a way to make the space, equipment and location work for his or her own vision.''

Though Lacobie never heard of the hybrid concept, she ruefully agrees: If she'd built out the kitchen years ago, it's likely she would have found someone to buy now. But then she would have had to sell more aggressively and hustle poets out after one cup. Who can create in a climate like that?

In fact, more has been created at House of Te than even most staffers know. New lives, for instance.

"I am in Al-Anon, which is for families of addicts," a chic 70-year-old woman says during Te's final month. She asks that her name not be used, per AA tradition. "I've come here since this opened, with people I sponsor."

She nods at a worn table. "I can't tell you what-all has gone on at that table," she says. "Sometimes Connie would come toward us, see someone crying, and just swerve away. All of us in recovery are talking about the closing—dozens and dozens of us. I don't know where we'll go."

Chai Carol, with her crocheted tablecloth and misty eyes, was not exaggerating the emotion Te House of Tea stirs in its patrons. Years ago, after retiring as an ICU nurse, Barden trained herself to step back from trying to fix things.

"Just the other day, I was sitting here having tea and I saw a car crash out the window on Fairview," Barden says. "I was good. I didn't run out and play Nancy Nurse. Things end. People die. It's something you learn in ICU." She takes a last sip of tea. "But I thought this would go on

This story appeared in the Houston Chronicle’s Gray Matters, on December 28, 2015, under the title “The Last Days of Te House of Tea.”

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