I squeeze past a Moroccan ottoman and settle onto a floor cushion at a low-slung table. Morgan Siegel and Wael Suliman, the wife-husband team behind Jeddah’s Tea, offer to make me a cup of tea. This isn’t surprising, as I’m visiting their pop-up tearoom at the American Tobacco Campus, but it’s also second nature for Suliman, whose family is from Somaliland. There, as in other eastern African countries, tea is the first thing you’re offered in someone’s home. Conversations begin over a cup.
They suggest the signature Daallo Latte, a traditional Somali spiced black tea that calls to mind Indian chai, redolent of black pepper, cardamom, and ginger. The warming spices shine through, even though the drink is iced. Suliman loves it that way, too.
“I remember on a hot day, I didn’t want to drink it hot, so I poured it over ice. I remember thinking, this is so good, I should sell this,” Suliman tells me. “Seventeen years later, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Siegel and Suliman launched Jeddah’s Tea last June. Since then, they’ve sold iced tea and custom tea blends—highlighting tea from countries underrepresented in the American tea market, such as Somaliland, Senegal, and Egypt—at events and in local businesses around the Triangle. They plan to open their first brick-and-mortar in downtown Durham this July—if they meet their $20,000 Kickstarter goal by May 31. (As of Tuesday, they were about $500 short.)
Jeddah’s Tearoom will be modeled after Old World teahouses. As such, it will be as much about creating an inclusive space as the thoughtfully crafted teas. What it won’t be is another co-working hub.
“Café culture here tends to be exclusive and unwelcoming to many demographics,” Siegel says. “That has to be eradicated and remind people, hey, it’s just a cup of coffee, it’s just a cup of tea. Most of the people in the world drink coffee and tea every day, and this isn’t something that will be reserved for the tech bro with a laptop.”
In countries like Morocco, teahouses serve as a hub where people from all walks of life gather to discuss community issues. It’s in this vein that the couple aspires to create a place where people can “disconnect to connect.” The aesthetic will fit the bill; Jeddah’s will partner with Nomadic Trading Company to furnish the intimate space with Moroccan poufs, Turkish rugs, and Eastern European antiques.
Tea is a meaningful part of Suliman’s and Siegel’s personal lives. Suliman’s maternal grandmother owned a tea, spice, and incense shop in Hargeisa, in northern Somaliland, and later in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she fled due to civil unrest. Jeddah’s Tea is named for her—Jeddah means “grandmother” in Arabic—and her face is on the logo. Siegel, who grew up in the Bay Area, recalls her mother’s pantry brimming with tea from her travels. The couple even met over a chance cup of chai in Berkley in 2014; they got married a few months later.
In 2015, seeking a better quality of life, Suliman suggested moving to Raleigh, near his mother in Wake Forest. At the time, with two young children (including one from Siegel’s previous relationship) and unattainable daycare costs, Siegel stayed home while Suliman worked two full-time jobs. Two years later, with Siegel now juggling three kids and Suliman burning out—yet still living below the poverty line—the couple hit their breaking point.
“What do we have to lose at this point?” Siegel asked one day. “Let’s do what we want to do.”
They wanted to do tea.
Last year, they borrowed $250 from Siegel’s mother to pay the vendor fee for Durham’s Juneteenth Celebration, then scraped together every penny to rent a truck, cooler, beverage dispensers, and a tent. They didn’t recoup their costs, but they met a powerful advocate in city council member DeDreana Freeman, who suggested the city could be receptive to their business.
Though they were living in Southeast Raleigh, Siegel says, “Durham was more willing to pick us up off the ground and say, ‘You can do this.’”
Freeman introduced them to Downtown Durham Inc., which helped facilitate their first pop-up at The Pinhook in September. Since then, they’ve worked the pop-up circuit and promoted their wholesale business, landing products at East Durham Bakeshop, People’s Coffee, and the Durham Co-Op.
In December, they went all in on Jeddah’s Tea. Suliman gave notice at both of his jobs, and the family moved to Durham. To turn the brick-and-mortar dream into a reality, Suliman’s mother co-signed the lease at 123 Market Street. And though they haven’t opened, Siegel geeks out discussing the educational workshops she’ll host, exploring different countries’ cultures and traditions, histories and struggles, all through tea.
“That doesn’t mean [the conversations are] always super comfortable,” Siegel says. “But over a cup of tea, everyone is more relaxed, your body language is more relaxed, and everybody is level.”