La Société du Thé sits on one of the busiest blocks in Uptown, and yet, it’s all too easy to pass the unassuming storefront without paying it any notice.
Over the 20 years that Tony Ruggiero has sold tea from the dark brick building at 2708 Lyndale, dozens of neighboring businesses have come and gone, Lego-like apartments have shot up, and he’s hardly changed a thing.
Walking by a few years ago, I pressed my face against the sidewalk window out of curiosity. Large steel containers lined the wall from floor to ceiling, flanked by hand-painted signs and intricate woodwork. I wandered in, not knowing the first thing about tea. Since then, I’ve returned every few months to restock, each time growing increasingly fond of the quiet shop that sits frozen in time on a chaotic street.
The shelves of La Société du Thé are stocked with upwards of 170 different loose leaf teas from around the world. The meticulously curated selection ranges from staple green and black teas to obscure oolongs, flavorful herbals, and organic matcha. Pick a random varietal, and Ruggiero rattles off its origin, flavor profile, and how to prepare it.
“Water should be just short of boiling, and you’ll get to know its character around four minutes for the first steep and seven for the second,” he says to a customer taking home a Chinese green tea.
One almost begins to wonder if all those years of forgetting the Lipton bag for half an hour as it dissolved into tea-flavored microplastics were a mistake.
Ruggiero is in his 70s, with slicked-back white hair and intense blue eyes. Originally from the North Shore of Massachusetts, his New England accent persists, along with a straight-to-the-point personality epitomized by a recommendation he once gave for a Boston tea shop near his old steeping grounds:
“They’ve got quality product… And you can tell them that they stole my list,” he added, grinning.
With most customers, Ruggiero skips fluffy Minnesota Niceties and gets straight to the point. Rather than staring up in awe at the wall of tea, consult one of the paper menus, ask questions more thoughtful than “Is this good?” and chances are you’ll head home with delicious tea and a story about one of the best-kept secrets on Lyndale.
Growing up in the historic epicenter of the colonial American tea trade, Ruggiero was never far from its traditions. An academic focus on Asian studies later in life brought him closer to the source of much of the world’s teas, and trips to French tea rooms in the early ’90s inspired the birth of his own operation in Minneapolis. Over the decades, Ruggiero has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of tea. Its history, science, and aesthetics weave together in his mind. When the mood strikes, he’ll squint his eyes to recall specifics and share an anecdote before sending customers on their way.
There’s a reverence for tea at La Société du Thé that’s palpable without feeling pretentious.
“There are no pinkies in the air here,” Ruggiero says. “We try to be sincere in our presentation, and I hope that’s something that people can still feel. Sincerity should be out there for you to experience, and that’s what I think we do.”
The benefits of tea are many. It’s cheap, healthy, and there’s a notable absence of coffee-induced heart palpitations. You can also buy it just about anywhere. What’s harder to come by is the experience of stepping into a shop that slows you down, no matter how much of a hurry you think you’re in.
As Ruggiero reminds customers, “Take your time to enjoy it.”