Palana Belken, left, and Emmett Soldati of Teatotaller. Courtesy photo.
When Emmett Soldati opened Teatotaller six years ago in Somersworth, he had just moved back to his hometown. He’d earned a graduate degree in anthropology in London, so it was natural to open a teahouse across from a GE plant, right?
“I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to open or run a business,” Soldati admits. And, as he readied the business to open, he remembers overhearing a woman walking by, saying, “A tea house in Somersworth? That will fail.” Despite that, he went on to raise $10,000 on Kickstarter and, shortly thereafter, opened the cafe. (The shop is called Teatotaller because Soldati gave up drinking in 2010.)
But what started as a one-man shop selling tea and scones has evolved into a bistro, offering hand-blended teas, espresso, coffee and beverages concocted from handmade syrups as well as homemade breakfast and lunch items.
As he added staff (which numbers six except for summers, when it grows to eight, to accommodate farmers markets and special events), he also added evening entertainment, providing a sober option for those seeking entertainment without the bar scene.
In 2016, when the city invested in its downtown, and a developer from Portsmouth renovated a building on High Street—a main artery for the city—Soldati relocated and “hit the reset button,” expanding both entertainment and the menu.
He also began emphasizing an aspect of his clientele that had always been part of the business—being a friendly venue for the LGBTQ community. He recalls in the early days of the business, a Yelp reviewer described Teatotaller as “an oasis of queer hipster tea, coffee and pastry goodness,” a description he feels is still apt.
Palana Belken, Teatoller’s general manager, says, when she moved to Somersworth from Boston with her partner, “I didn’t connect with the community,” until she came to Teatotaller. “A six-foot drag queen came in, and I thought, ‘this place is cool.’”
Belken cultivates the events at Teatotaller, including drag shows, a children’s story hour, a sober hip hop show on New Year’s Eve and an “Ask A Trans Person Anything” panel.
But what put Teatotaller on the map is a promotional campaign that communicated the inclusive nature of the business. On a whim, Soldati rented the billboard on West High Street and create an ad featuring a customer, Michael Cummings, a young man who wore full make-up with stubble.
“We had this ethos of ‘Be who you are and don’t listen to the haters’,” Soldati says. The ad also featured Cummings in a pink halter top with a breakfast sandwich in hand and the statement, “I like my men, like I like my coffee—with breakfast at Teatotaller.”
The billboard created a local stir with people taking to social media to both defend the ad and, for others, claiming its inappropriateness. Then, as word of the billboard spread, both local and national media, created stories that were widely shared.
Teatotaller's "Chai Curious" billboard.
And the advertising worked. “It was constant. People we’d never seen were saying they were coming in because of the billboard,” Belken says.
Teatotaller’s latest billboard features Cummings with a drink and the tagline, “Chai Curious?” “Kids say thank you for being a voice and being bold,” Soldati says.
Soldati says Somersworth is queer friendly, noting it was the first NH city to elect an openly gay mayor and had a gay superintendent as well as openly gay city councilors. Soldati sees Teatotaller as a hub for the city’s LGBTQ community.
He also notes the business has grown 15 percent annually. “We’re committed to expanding,” Soldati says.
For more information, visit teatotallerteahouse.com