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Guest Post by Sarah Eccleston, James Madison University for Small Business Development Center
Tucked in a small nook in the heart of downtown Harrisonburg, almost unnoticeable to passersby lay the Downtown Rabbit Hole, a small tea shop decked out in Alice in Wonderland decor from floor to ceiling. Inside a smiling face greeted guests and presented them with a selection of teas for them to smell.
In the United States, 73.9 percent of millennials, the largest tea audience, drink coffee everyday, according to statista. However, only 34 percent drink tea daily, according to StudyFinds. Although the odds were against her, Doe Polanz opened the Downtown Rabbit Hole, a pop-up Alice in Wonderland inspired tea shop in downtown Harrisonburg at the end of September 2022 and it was open until the end of January.
Nearly two years before opening her storefront she came to the SV SBDC seeking help on how to start her business. Polanz said that Allison Dugan stood by her throughout this process and understood that Polanz was set in her goal to open a tea only shop.
Many people tried to convince Polanz that just tea wouldn’t sell and the only way her business model would succeed would be if she included coffee in the menu, but Polanz said that this was not her vision.
Throughout the process Polanz was very grateful that everything from Dugan was merely a suggestion, and she said that Dugan really understood her unique personality when it came to her business.
Polanz worked on the idea for her store for about two years before finally opening the pop-up. In 2019, Dugan helped Polanz join the LAUNCH program, a local initiative which paired future business owners with a mentor who owned a successful business. Polanz’s mentor was Kirsten Moore, owner of Magpie Diner.
She did the LAUNCH program online, and in the meantime she was in France looking for a French tea distributor which could have their American debut at her shop. She finally settled on Maison Bourgeon, a tea distributor in Nice, France.
She also took seminars from the SV SBDC, and got many suggestions from Allison Dugan, director of SV SBDC. She liked working with the SV SBDC because of the “the human aspect,” one of the most important values to her.
“Without the human aspect you wouldn’t have anything,” said Polanz.
While working on creating her business plan, Polanz wrote down her core values, including — creativity, community, connectivity and hospitality. She realized that all her values had “tea” in them so it was all about tea but it wasn’t just tea, it was the humanity that mattered most to her.
Polanz wanted her shop to be a place where anyone could come and feel at home. She described it as a salon de thé, literally meaning ‘tea shop’ in French but to Polanz it means it’s an extension of herself, like she is sharing a part of her living room with her customers.
Speaking of the human connections she gained, Dugan brought a vast network with her and suggested that Polanz join JMU Women in Business. The group connected her with many local business owners in the community such as PrePOPsterous Gourmet Popcorn & Sodas, a popcorn business in Bridgewater, Virginia.
“Without them I would have done nothing,” Polanz said about her overall experience with the SV SBDC.
Polanz is still doing private events, but just like Alice, she is open to the unknown, and just like the Mad Hatter said, it’s always tea time.
Keeping Up with The Downtown Rabbit Hole
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Daily News Record
Doe Polanz, owner of the Downtown Rabbit Hole, hosts a tea tasting in her shop on Court Square in downtown Harrisonburg on Wednesday.
Photos By Daniel Lin / DN-R
If the White Rabbit were to rush into her new tea room, Doe Polanz would hop to pour him a steaming cup of his favorite tea.
But for Polanz, there is no need to rush — it’s always time for tea.
The Downtown Rabbit Hole is a pop-up tea room offering artisan French teas, tea tasting parties and more, based in a cozy café at 2 N. Main St. in the space that was once Court Square Coffee. The Rabbit Hole celebrated its soft opening Sept. 28 and will be open through the end of January, according to the owner.
A world traveler, Polanz said she became fascinated with how tea is crafted and enjoyed all around the world and how different places have different traditions centered around tea.
Polanz, who is French and German, having grown up on the border between the two countries, said French tea culture is all about the sense of smell and starting with a quality product that doesn’t need any additions like milk or lemon.
A selection of teapots and teas sit on a table at the Downtown Rabbit Hole.
“I absolutely love Chinese tea, Japanese tea as well,” Polanz said. “The French, of course, we don’t grow our tea so we have a base: black tea, white tea, green tea. And they add. They love perfume, they love smell.”
While visiting a Christmas market in Nice, France, Polanz came upon a vendor of flavorful, loose-leaf teas called Maison Bourgeon.
She exclusively offers Maison Bourgeon tea in her shop and online store. Coming in a variety of fragrant blends from energizing to relaxing, flavors include the tart and adventurous blend Polanz calls Wild Flower, the zesty and vibrant Lemon Me Up!, and Magical Popcorn, a sweet and roasty drink that’s popular with children.
Polanz — who is studying to become a certified tea sommelier, or tea tasting expert — said drinking tea can be an experience akin to wine tasting, appreciating the subtleness of the flavors and smells in the drink.
Doe Polanz, owner of the Downtown Rabbit Hole, prepares to-go teas in her shop Wednesday.
With a background in higher education, Polanz said she loves educating her customers on different kinds of teas.
Additionally, she said she likes to help people find a tea they like to drink, but this is where a bit of madness comes in.
“When people say, ‘What’s your best tea?’ It’s like, it depends on how you are feeling,” Polanz said. “I’m pretty much the Mad Hatter of this place, because there’s not a straight answer.”
A lover of fantasy and with a professional theater background, Polanz dressed up like the Mad Hatter with sparkly violet lipstick, a top-hat fascinator and a whimsical necktie with a swirling pattern on Wednesday to pour a few of her Maison Bourgeon teas.
Polanz offers tasting experiences, hosting or setting up at special events from birthdays to bachelorette parties. She invites her customers to first look at the loose-leaf tea, then smell it and list the different things they imagine.
She also sells the loose leaf teas, which engage the sense of sight with ingredients like popped popcorn, raspberries, violet flowers or bits of papaya.
Polanz said she likes to take her time with each customer to make sure they get exactly what they want.
“How do you feel today? Do you want something that will energize you? Do you want something that will relax you?” Polanz said she asks customers. “For me, it’s all about the one-on-one customer care.”
Harrisonburg artisan tea shop looks to bring ‘French flair’ to Main Street
Published: Oct. 19, 2022 at 10:05 AM EDT|
HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Dorothée ‘Doe’ Polanz was born and raised on the border of France and Germany and has always had a curiosity and passion for tea-making.
Now she’s sharing that love through a pop-up shop in downtown Harrisonburg.
“When you come here you also have a kind of an education part because I teach people what is tea, how the French people drink it which is very different from you know other culture,” Polanz said.
Polanz is an Associate Professor of French at James Madison University and is using that background in her pop-up tea shop, the Downtown Rabbit Hole.
At the shop, you can find decorations inspired by Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, along with tastings and sales of a variety of French-style teas. She says the shop is about connecting and experiencing these specific types of tea whether in a group or by yourself.
“We add fruit, we add flavor, all of this is natural there is no artificial flavor, but you know pieces of fruit, pieces of flowers rosebuds, pineapple. Because the French love their flavors and perfumes, so it’s very very flavorful,” Polanz explained.
Along with the on-site tastings and teas for sale, Polanz also offers at-home services for events like birthday parties and bridal showers.
The Downtown Rabbit Hole will be located at 2 N. Main Street in Harrisonburg until Jan. 31.
You can find more information by clicking here.
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