Big dreams are brewing–along with nearly 100 varieties of tea–at My Place for Tea, the tiny shop Enrico and Minerva Zamora opened on Belmont in January. There’s full-bodied mango black from Ceylon, an Indian Darjeeling dressed up with rose petals, and a pale, tropical pineapple-scented green variety. South American yerba mate is for sale, as are its traditional drinking gourd and metal straw. There is Japanese hojicha, made from twigs, Korean barley tea, which tastes like coffee, and marzipan tea laced with rum. “Someday we want to open tea stations in hospitals, offices, convenience stores, banks, everywhere,” says Enrico.

The Zamoras, both Filipino by birth, met in Chicago on a blind date 14 years ago. When Minerva told Enrico she had some high school academic medals she wanted to frame, she learned that Enrico’s family had made them. In fact, his great-grandfather Crispulo Zamora was the country’s first engraver. The Zamora family supplied medals, plaques, trophies, and belt buckles to schools and institutions including the U.S. military. At one point the Marcos government was its biggest customer. “I made millions and millions of campaign buttons for Marcos’s last election,” says Enrico, who took over the business after his father died.

Minerva grew up on a farm; her father was an agriculturist who experimented with rice strains and mango varieties. After attending Saint Louis University in Baguio, Minerva became an operating-room nurse. In 1985, during the political turmoil that preceded Marcos’s collapse, she moved to Chicago. Unable to get her nursing records transferred, she found work as an aide in a nursing home and eventually rose to the position of nurse supervisor.

With the fall of Marcos, Enrico’s company lost most of its contracts, and in 1988 he too headed to Chicago. Once an executive with 25 employees, he found odd jobs that included counting nails for an inventory company and washing floors and taking out garbage at a convenience store. He married Minerva in 1991 and the next year enrolled at Truman College. He found a full-time job as a computer programmer, but in 2001 he was laid off.

The Zamoras started trying to think of a business they could run. A laundry was one possibility, but in his research Enrico stumbled across a couple of tea companies–one was an importer, the other a supplier to hotels–and was intrigued. “We saw an opportunity,” he says: tea retailing seemed like a market that was untapped in the midwest. Already an avid tea drinker, he decided he would produce a line of private-label teas. Last summer the couple started selling it over their Web site, They also attended a conference in Denver entitled “Tea for Pleasure and Profit” and joined the American Tea Society. Then, since tea is a “touch-and-feel” kind of business, says Enrico–“People want to see it and smell it”–they started looking around for storefronts.

Friends warned Enrico he’d fail unless he also sold coffee, but he refused. “I like the challenge,” he says.

“By selling tea, I am promoting health,” says Minerva, now a full-time intensive-care nurse at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. “We will never, never carry coffee. It’s against my teachings.” At work she is setting up a tea time to help calm nurses stressed out from 12-hour shifts. She advises customers to breathe the steam to clear their airways. “It also helps open your pores,” she says. “You’re doing aromatherapy, which calms you down. And it’s another way to increase fluid intake.”

Minerva does all the buying for the store, while Enrico runs the daily operations. Besides tea, the shelves are stocked with pots, tea strainers, jams, scone mixes, teapot-shaped cookies, and tea-infused sachets for bathing. There’s a counter and four tables for those who want to enjoy their tea in-house. No food is served, but in the near future the Zamoras plan to offer scones.

One of the Zamoras’ best-selling teas is the rooibos, a strong-tasting South African red variety that’s rich in antioxidants and smells like olives. White tea–which has a sweet taste and a pale yellow color and is picked only twice a year, while the leaves are still buds–is among the world’s rarest types and among My Place for Tea’s priciest. “Loose leaf teas have better quality than their tea bag counterparts,” Enrico says. “The larger the leaf, the better the taste, nutrition, and quality.” Black teas have one-third the caffeine content of coffee; green teas have a little less; red tea has no caffeine at all.

Enrico and Minerva hope to open more little shops around Chicago, and they’d like to be able to educate people about tea without turning the world’s second most popular drink–after water–into a status symbol. The formality of English tea is not for them, nor is the ritualization of Asian tea ceremonies, says Enrico. “We want to keep tea casual.”

My Place for Tea is at 901 W. Belmont, 773-525-8320.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.