Glass Action

Tea, wine, and a friendly face

by Rosie Wolf Williams

lauren_parkerThree years ago, Lauren Parker sold her medical billing and consulting company to open The North Branch Café, Tea & Wine. The Montpelier café, housed in the former Chittenden Bank space, also features a wine bar, art gallery, and a small menu of local food items.

Like a secret room behind a bookcase, The North Branch Café, Tea & Wine is hidden in plain sight. It hugs the narrow sidewalks of Montpelier’s State Street and waits to be discovered. Step inside, breathe deep, read a book, and walk on trees.

Its name may bring a vision of a coffee shop, but its menu is devoid of coffee drinks. “There is a different energy that comes with coffee,” says owner Lauren Parker. “We’re trying to create an environment of calm and peacefulness, as opposed to energy. The tea brings that, and the wine brings that, too. And there are so many coffee options in town. If you want to go get a cup of coffee, just bring it in — it’s fine.”

A large basket of colorful clogs sits at the entrance, inviting customers to remove outside shoes. Doing so makes you feel at home and helps preserve the floor: a surface of trees painted by Parker’s artist daughter Becky. Customers order and pick up their drinks at the bar, gather for conversation or quietly work on laptops. The tea is both ceremonial and casual, and it seems to mend everything together.

Pennsylvania-born Parker grew up outside of Poughkeepsie, New York. She attended college at State University of New York at Albany, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1981 with a minor in business for human resources. She worked for a dental office before attending college, and became interested in the way computer systems were being installed into medical and dental offices. After graduation, she moved to Stamford, Connecticut, and was hired as a public relations person at Dental Associates of Stamford.

“The hygienist thought that Wes [Wes Parker, a patient] had the most beautiful eyes that she’d ever seen, and she said to me, ‘If you two got married your children would have beautiful eyes.’ In our practice you weren’t allowed to leave a patient alone, so she said that she needed to go do something, and she called me to sit with her patient, who was Wes,” says Parker, laughing.

“We gave out balloons because the motto of the practice was, ‘We cater to cowards,’ and so she put my business card inside a balloon, and she gave him the balloon. And then she left me there with him for 25 minutes. Finally the dentist comes in and says, ‘Oh, you’ve been in here for a little while.’ I said, ‘Yeah, Kate needed me to stay with her patient, and she disappeared.’ So then I found out later that she had done it on purpose because she wanted us to meet.”

They married in 1986 and have two daughters: Emily, 25, is a grad student at Cornell University; Rebecca, 27, is an artist with a studio in Montpelier.

Parker fell in love with Vermont after attending a University of Vermont reunion weekend with a friend. Another Vermont friend offered to let her stay for a while, and Parker started looking through the paper for a job. “There was an ad in the paper for a salesperson for medical and dental computer systems. I didn’t know anything about computer operations, other than the fact that I had implemented computers in the dental office I worked in.” She interviewed and was hired in 1986 for the job at Breen Systems Management in Williston.

She met Sandra Bechtel, a registered nurse who was a customer of Breen Systems, and in 1991 the two formed MBA Health Group, a medical billing and consulting company. Bechtel had the clinical and business knowledge that Parker lacked, and Parker understood the billing business and computer software side to the partnership.

“We worked together for 22 years,” says Parker. “Health care is a very driven industry, and there’s a lot of stress, strain, and trauma. You’ve got patients that are upset; doctors that are concerned; and insurance companies are fighting you. It’s a constant battle. I probably worked 60 to 80 hours a week, and it was hard work. I had always told Sandy that when my youngest child graduated from college, I was going to open a teashop.”

She meant it. Parker sold her portion of the business to Bechtel in 2012, and began searching for the right spot. Wes wanted to move his tech services business to downtown Montpelier, so they decided to look for space that would accommodate both businesses.

“Becky thought that Montpelier really needed a wine bar, so if I was going to open a teashop I should also have a wine bar. The two actually go really well together because of the way that each of them is impacted by where the grapes and tea leaves are grown — the weather, the elevation, the type of soil are really important to how a tea or a wine is going to end up tasting.”

Becky designed the space, including the colors, and for the first two and a half years almost all her artwork was there, says Parker. “This was her gallery. Her first two paintings were sold to a couple from Paris.”

They opened on April 15, 2013. The 1,800-square-foot shop at 41 State St. now has a rotating guest artist gallery and is involved in Montpelier’s quarterly Art Walk. North Branch offers a small menu of locally made food items, a regularly changing wine list, and 75 teas, catering to everyone’s tastes. “If somebody says, ‘I like coffee with cream and sugar,’ or ‘I like hot chocolate,’ or sometimes people just like water, then I can find something that they’re going to like,” says Parker, smiling. “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, I don’t like tea.’ It’s because they’ve never had a good tea.”

Glasses for tea and wine are similar — a purposeful choice. “You have a glass of wine, I have a cup of tea, we’re the same,” says Parker. “We’re sitting at a table and from a distance we’re drinking the same thing. If the colors are different, it doesn’t matter. All the teas have different shades, all the wines have different shades, everybody’s together on the same level. That was really important to me.”

North Branch Tech Services, Wes’s business, can be accessed through the café as well as from the outside, inviting busy customers to stay for a few moments of calm. “Wes had a solid line of people with problems from Christmas — people coming in saying they downloaded something and their screen was blue. He has customers who come in off the street, and he has contracts with businesses in town,” Parker says.

Kelly Sullivan, owner of Splash Naturals in Montpelier, has supported the addition of the teashop to Montpelier’s business district from its inception. “North Branch Café is a tremendous addition to downtown. With its quiet rooms and beautiful larger area to gather, it has been a real treat to have. Lauren is a bright and soulful businesswoman. I respect and appreciate her.”

Despite the shop’s ideal location on State Street, one of Parker’s biggest challenges was being noticed by street traffic. “The building had been empty for so long that people didn’t look at it any more,” she says. “We had signs on the street so that people could see it if they looked up. For about a year and a half people would say, ‘When did you open?’ Still, people are saying, ‘I didn’t even know you were here.’”

Table turnover is not a priority; Parker is dedicated to serving the customer who needs a place to unwind and process the day. A smaller back room dubbed “The Library” can be closed off from the main space so that meetings can be made private. Montpelier Death Café meets once per month in the space.

“Death Café is an open community forum discussing death and dying, sharing and listening in the company of others,” says co-facilitator, author, and psychotherapist Fred Cheyette. “The staff greets us with smiles and provides whatever support we may need. The service of tea, wine, and food is unobtrusive, and the quality of the food is excellent. We feel blessed to have such a wonderful place to meet.”

North Branch Tech Services helps to support the teashop, says Parker, who didn’t expect to see a profit for three years. “The reason is not because I couldn’t see a profit, but I worked really hard in healthcare, and I don’t want to feel that way ever again. I have more staff than most people who would own this business.

“When I sold my business, I allocated funds to make sure that I was never in that kind of a stressed-out-owner situation again, and that was my focus. So I created the best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, and the most likely. At this point we’re just planning on making the business comfortable.

“It was hard to bring tea and wine into a beer-and-coffee town. But it has ended up being a great learning time. We created wonderful protocols because we had the time to do it. We also have customers who have their meetings here. They come in, and they’re like Norm at Cheers — we know what they like. That makes me happy.” •