When Reem Rahim started Numi Tea with her brother, Ahmed, in a North Oakland apartment in 1999, she didn’t think she’d be in the tea business for long. While Ahmed had run tea houses in Prague, Rheem was studying art at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, and thought a tea company would be a good way to finance her true passions for painting and drawing.
“Initially, the goal was to work for a couple years, sell [the business], and be artists in our studios,” she said. “But that somehow changed.”
The tea business, it turns out, can be all-consuming. After starting with nine kinds of tea and three employees, a little more than a dozen years later, Numi Tea is now found at supermarkets and health food stores in all 50 states. “It just took off,” said Rahim. “Reality set in, and it was a lot of hard work, and day in and day out, we started seeing we were making an impact.”
The Rahim family emigrated from Iraq to Cleveland, Ohio when Reem and Ahmed were kids. The Rahims named their company after a tea from Iraq called “Numi,” dried lime cooked in the desert sun, that they drank as kids in Cleveland. “It’s a tea of hospitality,” Rahim said. “So you go to somebody’s home, or a shop, and somebody comes and brings you that tea with tons of sugar.” But this kind of tea isn’t widely found outside of Middle Eastern stores. “We always thought wouldn’t it be cool if somebody imported this tea to America,” Rahim said, “and we just decided to do it ourselves.”
Numi found its niche, said Rahim, is importing rare and unique teas with real fruit, flowers and spices that no other companies are—most of their supplies come from China and India—and packaging them in brightly colored boxes with artwork Rahim designs. They have also specialized in selling teas from South Africa, like rooibos [which has a vanilla taste] and honeybush [earthy taste with honey overtones] and , and lemon myrtle, a loose-leaf flowering tea in which moist leaves are sewn together and wrapped into a ball before they’re dried—teas that, while popular in Europe, weren’t commonly available in the United States. “Tea was a saturated market,” Rahim said. “We started getting on the shelf with the sort of more unique tea that we have.”
Since the company’s early days in Rahim’s apartment in North Oakland, Numi Tea has moved several times; it has been headquartered on Livingston Street, just off the 880 freeway near Alameda, since 2006. The current location houses office space, and all of the 25 varieties of tea the company sells are on display and available for purchase. But what separates the current location from the past ones is the tea garden, a quiet indoor space set with tables and couches, which showcases Numi’s teas as well as other loose-leaf teas from around the world. Small food items like hummus and quiche are available to order as well.
The tea garden looks much like a coffee shop crossed with a meditation center, with brightly colored tile tables, concrete floors and red pipes exposed on the walls, and customers with laptop computers out and a cup of tea next to them, but also with furniture from Asia, like a shiny wooden table with a laughing Buddha carved into it, and music playing quietly in the background.
Even with all the choices at the tea garden, though, the employees tend to pick one kind and just drink that for weeks. On a weekday afternoon, Reem Rahim and Joe McKinnon, the manager of the tea garden, are sitting at a multi-colored tile table with teacups in front of them. Rahim is drinking a cup of toasted rice, her current favorite. “Everybody here tends to gravitate toward a particular tea at a particular time of day, or period of their life,” Rahim says. McKinnon agrees, mentioning that he’s been on a three-week Pu-erh kick [An organic loose leaf tea from China that has a smooth and malty taste]. “People will ask me my favorite kind of tea, and I’ll say, ‘It depends on the time of day,” McKinnon says. “Depends on the kind of day, depends on the weather.”
Rahim says that, a dozen years after opening, she’s happy to be able to sit in a room surrounded by boxes of tea printed with labels she designed, and enjoy a cup of tea from the company she owns. While she said she never thought the company would be this successful, she is happy she was able to meld her love of art with the business of tea. “What’s constantly threaded through when we started to now is this sort of way of being creative,” she says.