Hamburg native has built a stalwart business on Miller Avenue that is diversified enough to withstand the ebbs and flows of traditional retail.

Mill Valley is home to four Starbucks, two Equators, a Peet’s, the Depot, Cable Car Coffee, Coyote Coffee and an array of coffee-serving breakfast joints – not to mention the plethora of top-notch barista setups at restaurants all over town.

While there’s no doubt that the 94941 hearts coffee, Rover Benecke knows there’s plenty of love for tea here too. Benecke, the owner of the Tea Fountain retail shop and wholesale business at 363 Miller Avenue, says the shifting demographics of tea drinkers over the years and better education about the benefits of tea have put him in a unique position.

“Better education and distribution of green teas has caused a significant shift over the years,” he says. “More and more people are going for the health benefits and a lighter flavor, and as a result, the average age of the tea drinker is getting younger, and with more men drinking tea. A lot of people continue to switch from coffee to tea.”

But in addition to demographic shifts, Benecke has also built a business that isn’t entirely constrained by the whims of the local tea-drinking crowd. While his retail shop brings in approximately one-third of his annual revenue, a robust focus on being a supplier to local restaurants, hotels and salons brings in another third, as do phone and Internet orders.

“Restaurants, hotels and salons all over the place are serving our teas,” Benecke says, as he pauses to take a phone order from the Pelican Inn.

Benecke was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany, home to the country’s largest tea and coffee port. His interest in a macrobiotic diet first drew Benecke to tea in his early 20s, and in 1975, just prior to his 25th birthday, he met the man who would provide him an entree into the international tea business.

“I had been asking wholesalers if I could buy 10 to 20 pounds at a time,” Benecke says. “One of them told me, ‘OK, young man, now that you know good teas, if I give you 100 good teas of your choice, would you open a tea business?’ I picked 100 teas in April and started paying him back in the fall – and by then I had my own tea business. He stayed my mentor for many years, took me to China and I dove in.”

Benecke’s travels to China gave him a window into potential changes in the European tea landscape, which had been dominated forever by traditional black teas. “It was not yet popular to know and be attracted to green teas, and I helped changed that perspective,” he says. “First harvest Darjeeling green teas used to be fermented the same as black teas, but now many are semi-fermented and are now greener than they used to be. That helped expand the market for green teas.”
Benecke’s China visits also opened him up to Zen Buddhism, a spiritual journey that eventually led him to the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center here in Mill Valley in March 1982.

“At that point, I was not only fascinated by zen, but drawn to California and the Bay Area,” Benecke says, noting that he lived in San Francisco for a year before moving to Marin. He’s been here ever since, living many years in Mill Valley and currently on a floating home in Sausalito.

Benecke continued running his international tea brokerage business but didn’t open his own brick-and-mortar retail shop until 2000, when he took a space in the Northgate Mall in Terra Linda. He stayed there for eight years before he made the move closer to home, taking over 363 Miller Ave.

Tea Fountain is home to more than 350 varieties of loose gourmet and artisan teas from around the world, as well as dozens of tea accessories. One step inside the front door reveals a tea paradise, one that Benecke backs up with a mountain of knowledge and expertise.

He says that the arrival of the Internet over the past two decades has created a more educated tea drinker, but that he still revels in his ability to inform his customers of the intricacies of the tea plant.  “Just like wine, it changes based on the season, the climate, the elevation, the location – all sorts of variables,” he says. “It’s always fascinating – never boring.”

Benecke says he’s constantly asked by folks at the College of Marin and local arts and civic organizations to teach classes and workshops on tea. He’s up for it – under one condition: it needs to be held in Tea Fountain, so that people can be surrounded by hundreds of varieties of the subject he’s teaching.

“This place – this is the College of Tea,” he says.

The 411: Tea Fountain is at 363 Miller Avenue. 415.381.7100. MORE INFO.

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