As Friday Elliott一owner and head tea witch of Friday Afternoon Tea一hands me a cup, I can’t help recalling Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of an enigmatic wizard librarian in the 90’s VHS classic The Pagemaster. Lloyd’s eyes twinkled mysteriously as he told an apprehensive Macauley Culkin, “I have a talent for guessing what people need.” While Elliot’s violet curls and bubbly demeanor are a far cry from Lloyd’s cryptic librarian, her eyes shine with a similar sprightly twinkle. She, too, has a knack for knowing what people need一and a passion for delivering it. And she’s about to prove it to me.
As I taste Moon Princess, the tea selected for me by Elliott and a member of her team, nostalgia plays out on my palate. Made with oolong tea, dried strawberries, elderflower, and sugar stars, the flavor reminds meof sleepy summer afternoons watching Sailor Moon. Each sip chisels away at a week’s worth of grown-up deadlines and post-pandemic anxiety with a flavor as refreshing as it is sentimental.
“When someone walks in, within a minute, I can tell what they need,” Elliott says, sipping her own cup. Tea as a tool for wellbeing is written into her DNA. While growing up on the grounds of a pagan spiritual retreat center at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California, she learned from her Herbalist grandmother who used tea, among other tools, for physical and emotional healing. But it wasn’t until a roundabout route through culinary school brought Elliott to an English tea room and a cup of Golden Monkey black tea that she began to see tea as a thread connecting communities socially.
“From that moment I was totally obsessed,” she recounts. However, it would take another fourteen years for her to find her way to full-time tea witch.
In the intervening years, Elliott worked as a jazz singer with a gig at an Italian restaurant. When not headlining, she took shifts in restaurant kitchens to make ends meet until a sudden onset of crippling stage fright ended her performing career.
Fortunately, with a culinary degree as a back-up, Elliott landed on her feet and took on more kitchen roles, building up a repertoire of flavor ideas and concepts. When she opened Friday Afternoon Tea as an online side business in 2010, she was eager to experiment. An Etsy shop and a growing community of tea lovers who backed a Kickstarter campaign finally brought the brick and mortar shop to life in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 2017.
Event Photography by Fearless Photoworks
From its inception, Elliott envisioned the shop as a communal space and a refuge. “I’m drawn to facilitating spaces for people to feel what they need to feel,” she says, sitting at a table which has in turn hosted craft and chat meetups, local pop-ups, paint and sip nights, Goth meetups, live music, Yule Balls, and more. The eclectic interior of Friday Afternoon Tea is designed for flexibility. Tables can be pushed together for social events or pulled apart for regulars who use the space as a home office, the shelving units can divide the space or stand against the walls to leave room for dancing, and the art decorating the shop shifts frequently to provide gallery space for local artists who also sell their prints there.
As a bi-racial woman with roots in two different cultures and the mother of a trans nonbinary child, Elliott also set out to create a space for people of any cultural background or gender identity to feel seen, respected, and above all, safe to be themselves. The point of a tea house, she explains, goes beyond nostalgia, comfort, or even caffeine. “Any type of tea house you could walk into is for connecting—whether it’s with other people, yourself, or your inspiration.”
But perhaps the main draw for the motley circle of patrons frequenting the space is Elliott herself and her remarkable tea-blending talent. From childhood, Elliott has had an astonishing ability—she ‘tastes’ words, feelings, and even abstract concepts. This extraordinary neurological gift, called synesthesia, is a pathway by which information meant to stimulate one sense also stimulates another. Synesthesia can range across all five senses and its expression is unique to individual synesthetes. In Elliott’s case, her particular gift opened the doors to exploring concepts which are otherwise visual, written, or heard, as flavors through the medium of tea.
“It started when a friend who owned a steampunk bookstore told me about a party she was hosting with a dark Alice in Wonderland theme,” Elliott recalls. The friend asked if she would be open to creating a tea blend for the event and Elliott was intrigued. The tea she brewed was a hit. From there she began experimenting with other concepts and fandoms through the prism of her unusual superpower.
“Things translate to a very literal sensory experience,” Elliott explains. “I think of a concept, taste that idea, pick it apart in my ‘brain mouth’一and then, with the help of vocabulary and concepts from chef school and growing up in wine country, I pick it apart, analyze the flavor profile, write down what I’m experiencing and find edible analogues.”
This one-of-a-kind tea creation process has given Elliott and members of her team opportunities to play with some very unusual flavor ideas. These range from a Super Mario tea with notes of tomato to custom wedding tea blends based on the personalities of the couple, and of course, more book teas. Even as Elliott describes her latest creation一a tea representing the endearingly comedic feeling of ‘Notice Me Senpai’一a member of her team walks over with a press full of a new tea blend he’s workshopping. The blend is called ‘One Ring to Rule Them All.’
Again, I’m amazed by the sense Elliott and her team have for their guests. The moniker arouses memories of reading The Lord of the Rings in middle school and the positive impact the story had on my life. Made with coffee beans, hot peppers, and edible glitter, its flavor is as deep and complex as the concept of the one ring, burning hot and glistening with mystery. When I’m surprised at how delicious the coffee tastes when brewed into tea, Elliott explains how, beyond adding depth of flavor, it can also change the character of the whole brew.
“Tea leaves extract fast because they’re porous but coffee takes longer for fats to open up,” she says, waxing poetic on the varied ingredients that can bring new dimensions to tea. Elliott’s personal favorite brew is sourced directly from the only tea farm in Colombia and takes its name Besos de Cacao, Spanish for ‘Cocoa Kisses’ from the addition of husks and nibs from a neighboring cocoa farm. “Around the third infusion, the fats in the cacao bloom and open up and really bring out the chocolate flavor.”
Elliott’s relationships with suppliers like that small farm in Colombia provide access to products that are uniquely high in quality and ethically sourced. “I strongly believe that tea tastes better when the people and the earth that have grown it, produced it, and processed it are treated with kindness and compassion,” Elliott explains. While in the beginning most of her teas were sourced from major importers, today Elliott cultivates relationships with individual farmers and buys only from them wherever possible.
With access to high quality products, a passion for devising new and noteworthy tea experiences, and an inexhaustible well of creativity, Elliott and her team are pushing the bounds of flavor and nostalgia. In addition to single origin teas, patrons at Friday Afternoon can find loose leaf teas celebrating a range of beloved concepts and fandoms from Jane Austen to Queer Rock Gods to tabletop RPG’s and even dinosaurs. The selection is ever-expanding. Also, there’s always the option to book a session to work on a custom tea with Elliott herself, Almost anyone can find a brew that feels like a personal invitation to come in and find a home.
“There’s just all these great ideas in the world and I want to make flavors about all of them!” Elliott says brightly.
But at the beginning of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world, in the interest of keeping staff as well as customers safe, Friday Afternoon Tea closed their doors before mandated lockdowns were even announced. Beyond the standard difficulties of running a small business during a global pandemic, closing for an unknown length of time presented Friday Afternoon with a host of challenges unique to their business model. “Having this joyful community space and then like, take-backsies, was hard,” Elliott recalls. “We formed such connections over the years; this space is like the neighborhood living room.” To counter the isolation, she turned to technology, setting up Twitch and Discord accounts as well as boosting the shop’s presence on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Near the one year anniversary of the start of the pandemic, a viral post on Elliott’s TikTok quintupled sales overnight, bringing in new business and creating new fans. The aftereffects of the moment were far reaching. Undiagnosed synesthetes who saw it were able to name their talent for the first time, Elliott was interviewed by a major online content publisher, and orders for tea flowed in. But alongside new supporters, Elliott’s success also brought out the trolls and painful comments sprung up on her posts. The interview went on to produce a video about Elliott’s talent with ableist undertones, and the flood of orders piled stress onto a team and a supply chain that were already stretched to their pandemic limits.
Six months down the road, despite her bittersweet brush with internet fame, Elliott is optimistic about the future. As Friday Afternoon Tea carefully reopens for instore guests, Elliott and her team have a year and a half’s worth of ideas waiting to come to fruition一including many new teas. New blends on the horizon include an expansion of their line of Studio Ghibli themed teas, a Disney Villains line, and representations of a couple of Elliott’s personal favorite fandoms, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and Star Trek.
But even more than serving up their latest creations, Elliott and her team look forward to welcoming their community of ‘thirsty nerds’ back. On the horizon are in-person educational tea tastings, pop-up events with local bakeries, National Novel Writing Month write-ins, cosplay tea parties, and perhaps even a Bob Ross paint-along night. Whatever your tea preference, your fandom affiliation, your favorite story, or even favorite dinosaur, Elliott and her team will be waiting. And they know exactly what you need.