Dobra Tea House greets its customers with a quiet welcome. Upon entering, a server will tell you in a hushed voice to sit wherever you like. World beats or sitar music and the occasional chime of a bell envelop you as you enter the recessed blue and orange décor. Sit at a wicker table or nestle up on a cozy corner cushion in one of six large nooks. This is a place to bring your friends or family; meet a date; bring your homework; or spend a few spare, quiet minutes with your thoughts. Dobra is meant to be a place for you to find refuge.
Customers who frequent Dobra are familiar not only with its meditative vibe or its book-length tea menu, but also many of the employees who have been working at the tea house since it opened in March of 2013. After extensive training that includes 20 hours of classroom time, tea tasting, a month or two of on-shift training, and a final written exam, these employees know almost everything there is to know about tea. Though tea tasting may sound like a walk in the park, it really isn’t; over the course of ten days, trainees spend two hours at a time sampling about half of the tea that Dobra offers.
The incredibly knowledgeable staff works together with little friction. André Brown, who began working at Dobra six months after it opened, says “Everyone treats each other like family here. Everyone knows each other— we hang out outside of work.” André is not only one of Dobra’s oldest employees, but he was also the tea house’s first customer. He visited on opening day, at the urging of his best friend, who worked there; he tried a tea he’d never had before; and the rest is history.
André’s favorite tea to prepare is the Japanese Matcha green tea, which is a traditional recipe that requires servers to mix a stone-ground leaf powder with hot water using a bamboo whisk. This is just one of over 100 authentically sourced, prepared, and served tea recipes that Dobra offers. It is the first tea house of its kind in Pittsburgh, designed not for a quick caffeine fix, but rather a relaxed, authentic tea experience.
Owner Nathaniel Pantalone, known as Nate by his employees and friends, says, “The atmosphere is supposed to be calm and meditative, like a lot of churches are. You go to church to pray or reflect and usually to socialize, too: With the tea room, we wanted it to be the same. As a community space, or a space where you can sit and reflect.”
Pittsburgh’s Dobra Tea is not the only Dobra in the country; it is the sixth location to open. Nate was a frequent customer at a Dobra in Madison, Wisconsin (now closed) throughout his four years in college at the University of Wisconsin. He became friends with the owner, Adam, and a few months after graduating, decided to open his own location in his home town, Pittsburgh.
Though Dobra is technically a franchise, it operates more like a collective organization, or a co-op. Unlike many franchises that mandate owners to follow exact procedures, the owners of each Dobra are free to organize their shop and sell whatever food items they wish. Even the tea menus are not entirely uniform, although all six locations do coordinate the bulk of which teas they sell.
Nate explains how the collective business structure works; “What makes us a franchise is the branding of our tea supply which saves us money. We provide a better supply of tea to our customers that way. Say for instance, we are running low on a specific tea. Instead of having to directly import it and wait for a month or two, we usually call up one of the other Dobra teas first and ask them, ‘Do you guys have any extra Assam tea?’”
The unique franchising agreement that each Dobra location enters extends beyond the bounds of a business agreement; it is like joining a family. Unlike many corporate franchises that encourage competition among various locations in order to boost overall productivity, the six Dobra Tea Houses support one another in all endeavors.
“The overarching organization is like a big family. The other owners came and helped us open. They helped with things like cleaning the rugs and putting them down right before we opened. They’re a big help. Every time a store opens a lot of owners go in and help the new person.”
Another major difference between Dobra’s business structure and a typical franchise is the lack of strict hierarchical structure. Rather than having an additional level of management for the franchise, the Burlington, Vermont location takes the lead on most decisions simply because it was the original Dobra Tea in the country. Nate says, “There’s a Dobra HQ in Burlington, which was the first Dobra in the US. They decide a lot of things for US locations; like, we are going to change the suppliers, we are going to change the tea bags, little things like that. They’re pretty much in charge because they were first.”
Perhaps the most unique and also most frequently contested aspect of the Dobra experience is the bell system. Customers are given a menu and a small bell when they enter, and must ring the bell to receive service. Occasional light rings, like laughing glass, will punctuate any visit to the tea room. The system can take some getting used to, for customers who feel as if they’re being demanding, yet employees find the bells to be a timesaver.
André says, “I appreciate it because we don’t have to constantly walk around like dedicated waiters.” He has a love-hate relationship with the bell system, however; “On the other hand, some people abuse it. Like, they’ll let their kids mess with the bell. Or one person will ring, and other people will forget that they needed to order. It will set off a chain of ringing.”
The bell system is just one small component of the experience-focused atmosphere at Dobra. Like all aspects of the business, the bells are both a practical and a resoundingly aesthetic choice. Every detail of Dobra: from the teaware, to the tea itself, to the vegetarian fare, the décor, and the music, is aimed at importing an authentic experience that customers would not find elsewhere in Pittsburgh.
Though Dobra is a tea room, the business is built around community: the community of owners and employees nation-wide, the local community of each location, and smaller community organizations that utilize Dobra as a dedicated meeting-space. Among the long list of events that occur at Dobra are Haflas with belly dancers and drummers, Bible study, a Tarot class, a comics club, and more.
Without these events and its community, Dobra would be lacking in a vital family-like component. Nate says, “The reason that myself and the staff enjoy working here is the regulars who are so nice. They’re like our family now.” Dobra Tea preserves many ancient traditions; perhaps most of all, Dobra facilitates the ages-old tradition of people coming together over tea.