ChocolaTea and The Pantry on Tap — the first selling tea and chocolates and the second specializing in oils and vinegars — share a common denominator: “the flavor experience,” says Polly Kragt, owner of these two shops on South Westnedge Avenue just north of Centre Avenue.
It’s no surprise that Kragt focused on flavor-oriented shops. When she was growing up in an Italian family, robust flavors abounded at the dinner table.
In 2008, she opened ChocolaTea and introduced the Kalamazoo area to tea accompanied by chocolate. Not run-of-the-mill tea supplied in a to-go cup with a bag, but tea served the “correct way,” says Kragt. Each tea must be steeped at a certain temperature, Kragt explains, and for a certain amount of time. And leaving a tea bag in the cup? Kragt cringes. She says that creates a bitter flavor.
For 20 years, Kragt worked as a pediatric nurse at Bronson Methodist Hospital. In a way, nursing led her to tea. Her passion started during long hours of study back in nursing school, when she tossed three tea bags into a pot and poured hot water on them. Then one day her eye caught directions on the side of the tea box.
“I found there’s a little bit of an art here,” she says. “Your tea tastes better if you follow directions. And then I discovered loose tea. I found it in a shop in Chicago. I bought some, and that just started the whole thing (the tea obsession) long before I opened (the shop).”
Entrepreneurial spirit runs in Kragt’s family. She is the only family member who entered college to study something other than business, but she says she still recognized her own entrepreneurial spirit. When the time came to answer that calling, Kragt knew exactly what type of business to open.
“People who are addicted to shoes should open a shoe store,” she says, laughing. “My addiction was tea.”
Kragt did her homework, traveling to tea shows and visiting tea shops on the West Coast. But she says she never stops learning or listening. After her daughter discovered a new tea trend while attending college in Colorado and suggested it to her, Kragt started serving boba tea. Boba tea, or bubble tea, is a tea mixed with milk that has tapioca balls in the bottom. (Variations include tea mixed with fruit or fruit jellies.) It originated in Taiwan, spread throughout East Asia and then caught on across the western coast of the U.S.
Referring to the tapioca balls, Kragt says, “They come dry and they’re pretty much tasteless, but they’re chewy, so you slurp and chew.”
Although boba tea proved a hit at ChocolaTea, Kragt says tea lattes remain the shop’s specialty — and its biggest seller. The 20-seat, 1,400-square-foot store now offers more than 15 varieties of lattes. To accompany the tea, Kragt provides 80 specialty chocolates. The top seller is sea salt caramel.
A few years ago, Kragt caught the entrepreneurial fever again — this time for oil and vinegar. In 2012, while at The Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, she met the owner of a Montana-based oil-and-vinegar store who wanted to expand and sell products wholesale. Kragt visited her store in Montana, where the owner educated Kragt on how such a store would do in the Kalamazoo area.
“It’s definitely a niche market,” Kragt says, “and I felt Kalamazoo needed it.”
When a 1,500-square-foot space a few doors down from ChocolaTea became available, Kragt snatched it up. The Pantry on Tap opened in January 2015.
“It’s the same kind of passion I had when I opened ChocolaTea,” Kragt says. “Now I like to look at things about oil and vinegar.”
Customers can taste the oils and vinegars at the store’s sampling bar. Kragt says The Pantry’s best-seller “hands down” is the caramelized garlic olive oil. Overall, she notes, flavored olive oils sell better than traditional ones. In vinegars, The Pantry sells quite a bit of balsamic, especially peach and pear, “because they’re sweeter and thicker and people like to use them for salad dressings,” Kragt says.
Her store also carries 140 spices and an array of salts, such as bacon and Thai ginger.
When Kragt opened The Pantry, she envisioned it as strictly a retail shop, but customers’ interests prompted her to change course. Many wanted to know how to use oils and vinegars beyond a dip for bread. Kragt now offers simple cooking classes on dressings and marinades. Eventually she wants to install a full kitchen in the back of the store for more extensive cooking lessons.
“I think there’s a lot of growth that can happen here,” Kragt says. “I’ve already expanded my spice section because customers wanted more things, so we’re just in the baby stages.”