Former Owner of Infini-T Cafe Still Sells Tea, But Online
ETHICAL TEA ESTATES: Mary Fritschie, familiar to Princeton patrons of the former Infini-T Cafe, volunteered in Uganda and Rwanda while searching out tea for Tea Leaf Market. She is shown here with Vanessa, a student at Kasiisi School in Uganda.
By Anne Levin
Back when she ran Infini-T Cafe & Spice Souk on Hulfish Street, Mary Fritschie used to love her morning routine of grinding up spices to brew chai teas. The aromas would permeate the roomy cafe, which opened in 2011 and attracted a loyal following.
That was before damage from a vicious storm flooded the premises, causing it to close for good in June, 2017.
“I miss those mornings. I really do,” Fritschie said during a recent telephone interview. Now living in Boulder, Colorado and running the online Tea Leaf Market with her two children, she has hopes of returning to Princeton at some point to open another, smaller cafe. “I’ve been looking,” she said. “I would love to be right on Nassau Street. I cannot tell you how much I miss being in Princeton.”
It was in August, 2011 that Fritschie and Michael Carnevale opened Infini-T, in a lower level space at the site of the former Underground Cafe (now Lan Ramen). Serious tea drinkers and admirers of Fritschie’s fresh-baked, vegan treats began patronizing the comfortable eatery, which also sold exotic spices and encouraged people to linger on the sofas and floor pillows. Readings and other public events were held at the popular space.
But after a rain storm in July, 2016, the cafe was inundated and could not recover. “We had no flood insurance and the landlord didn’t repair the motors to get the sewage water out,” said Fritschie. “We finally had to close for good. It was really sad. I felt very lost at first. I had such lovely people working for me, and they didn’t want to leave. It was a mainstay of the community, and I didn’t know how to fill in all those pieces. But you have to take lemons and make lemonade, which is what I have done.”
Fritschie traveled to Rwanda and Uganda, where her daughter was working. In Uganda, she did volunteer work with families and children in a school at a tea estate. She toured factories, schools, and houses. “I never imagined seeing such a beautiful tea estate in Rwanda that rivaled those I do fair trade with in India,” she said.
Continuing her education, Fritschie has been taking courses on culture and nutrition, and the spices and blending of tea. She is currently training under a Chinese herbalist.
The online Tea Leaf Market (tealeafmarket.com), which Fritschie started in 2015, is now going full steam. “We had slowly started it but didn’t focus on it, because Infini-T was taking too much of my time and my daughter was still in school,” Fritschie said. “But we always had a small client base going to it for ethical tea, which, by the way, tastes great.”
When she returned from her travels abroad, Fritschie and her children decided to focus on the online operation. “We wanted to keep it going, and we didn’t have the money for bricks and mortar,” she said. “We realized we could reach a much broader market by doing the online business, putting a percentage of the profits into community efforts. Right now, we’re supporting two children in Uganda to go to school.”
Tea Leaf Market supports fair wages, housing, and schools. All of the tea Fritschie and her family sell is labeled from ethical tea estates, a standard comparable to fair trade, she said. The company carries pure teas such as Darjeeling and Golden Tips, as well as blended teas. Packaging is done by Fritschie in Colorado. She mixes most of the blended teas herself, and also works with another tea blender from India.
Tea Leaf Market offers a tea club for people who want to try different blends. “A lot of people who are not pure tea drinkers might not know what they want,” Fritschie said. “For under $15 a month, they can get up to 40-50 cups and see what they like.”
Before opening Infini-T, Fritschie and Carnevale visited tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam, observing that the plantations took good care of their employees. Fritschie is committed to the same idea with the online business. “If you have an ethical tea company that is not going to have child labor, and lets girls go to school instead of picking teas in the fields, with real housing instead of one-room huts — then that’s what we’re supporting,” she said.