I’m about ten minutes into my interview with Sunyatta Amen, head witch and owner of Calabash Tea in Shaw when Amen grabs an herb and beckons me closer. The cup is filled to the brim with dried holy basil and as she grasps it, I get a whiff of the leafy green plant. It’s a heady scent that starts sweet and has a deeper almost incense-like base, not unlike Amen, whose bubbly and outgoing personality is underscored with a deep knowledge of plants, herbs, roots… and people.
Her interest in plants and people is baked into every part of Calabash. From the moment you walk in the door, her team makes it clear they’re there to do a lot more than serve you tea, they want to heal you. And that healing can take many forms. Amen has created teas that help with PMS, colds, heartache and what feels like a million other things. As she explains time and time again, “We’re here to heal the people, so we take it seriously.”
As we chat about her beginnings as a shop kid, her affinity for matchmaking and her thoughts on D.C.’s small business scene, I sip on something cold with an undercurrent of cinnamon. It’s been a long day and before walking into the shop, I was ready to take a nap anywhere they would let me. Walking out the door, I felt more energized than I had in weeks. I don’t know if it was my conversation with Amen or my tea, but either way, she’s doing something right.
Can you tell me about your first job?
My first job was at my parents original location. I guess you could say it was the prototype of Calabash.
It was called Pyramid, right?
Yes. It was in New York and I worked behind the bar. Before I could peep over the counter I worked there. I was probably about four or five. When you’re a shop kid, you have all the jobs. You’re everything to all the people all the time.
My first job I can remember is that I was the bagger of the Golden Seal, the Golden Seal root. There was a little machine with a wire and it got hot and you would put it on the little plastic bag and it would seal the bag. So my job was sealer of the Golden Seal. It sounds quite auspicious… But it’s not. You know what is interesting? I went through my entire childhood bagging the Golden Seal, like my fingertips would be yellow, but I never got sick. I’ve never spent a day in the hospital. I got a cold maybe twice in my childhood and I never had an ear infection. I base that upon being around all the herbs, I was probably breathing in more Golden Seal then I was bagging.
In addition to that, I also grew up as a vegan, so I don’t think I got the upper respiratory issues that a lot of my comrades in school seemed to come down with all the time.
I know this runs in your family, but can you tell me about the process of becoming an herbalist?
I think there are two paths to that. One is, you’re going to a school here in the western world, you are studying this thing. Then there is the path that is more the tradition of indigenous people, where your training is not “formal”, but it is over years and it’s incredibly intensive. You may spend years studying with your great grandmother or your grandmother and you don’t even know you’re studying. You just think you’re going on walks with them, but they’re pointing out every medicine, every use, what it’s for, what does it do, when do you use this thing versus another thing. All of those opportunities are there, but only on the walkabout.
Becoming an herbalist is apart of a grillo, an oral tradition, that is visual as well.
You’re also a naturopath, is that similar?
No, that’s more of a formal training with a school, my undergraduate and graduate degrees and all that. That’s more of your biology track, your pre-med track.
What attracted you to that? Why did you want to go to school for it?
I’ve always been a science geek. This is my thing. Science, Sci-Fi, all of that. I really enjoy science, so my job is to know all of the things that are available. Some people will say, “Oh I’m an herbalist, I like making teas or blending this,” but they don’t have the scientific training. They’re missing the technical elements. So just saying, “I love ginger, I’m going to put ginger in this tea.” I’m very concerned when people say they’re going to start a tea business, because tea is medicine. It’s a delivery mechanism of herbal medicine. Unless your teas are just for taste, I think it would behoove you to study with a master greater than yourself so you can give your people the best product. Or else you’re doing everyone a disservice.
Why did you want to open this shop in D.C.? What was the process behind getting the doors open?
There’s two parts to that. We’ve been in D.C. for about eight years and I’m a New Yorker, born and raised. I like D.C. It’s less cold and dirty than New York and in general the people are a little less cold and dirty. There’s nothing wrong with New York, but it’s a different element, it’s a different energy. I think that D.C. still has a little southern flavor. It still has a little, “Hello! How are you doing?” whereas in New York it’s like, “Why are you talking to me?” So I think there’s something to be said about creating a business in a space where there needs to be a little more trust. A sort of implicit, “I’m here to help you and we’re here to serve you.” So that’s one of the reasons why I chose D.C.
As far as the process of getting the doors open, it was amazingly challenging. I’m convinced D.C. is not a town that really wants small business to open and succeed. It’s more of a fluke if you do it and you make it work out. Either that, or you’re what we like to call a trustafarian. You need a hefty trust fund and that’s the way a lot of coffee shops and businesses get built. Their parents in Bethesda and Potomac write checks and they get it done. We had to get it honest. I had to use my children’s school fund and my grandchildren’s money and make it happen. It’s more of a gamble, so you have to make it work. Failure is not an option. I think that embodies a lot of the immigrant spirit that my grandparents came to this country with. Succeed is what you do.
My grandfather used to say, “We’re Jamaicans, not Ja-B-can’ts.” So it was all A’s all the time.
Do you think it’s gotten easier for small business to open up in the last eight years you’ve been here? Or has it gotten worse?
It’s not been easier. I’ve seen a lot of people go out of business, even on our block. Uprising, Drift, Sprint isn’t there. I mean if you’re a multibillion corporation and you’re like, “Ugh…” You know what I mean? It’s surprising to us and at the same time it isn’t surprising when the rents are so astronomical. It’s untenable to pay 5, 6, 7, $8000 a month in rent when you’re not selling alcohol. Here’s what I think happens. You have to either sell legal addictive stimulants in the morning or legal addictive depressants at night. You either have to have coffee you’re throwing in people’s faces and they’re addicted or you’re selling alcohol at night, so they’re winding up or they’re winding down. That’s why we started, to occupy that third space.
You don’t do either, so what’s you secret to success?
We do have some coffee. We do it as pour overs and they’re organically shade-grown and really beautiful, but I would say that coffee’s probably 10% of our business. If that. My parents are from coffee countries, I know coffee. Even when I go to some of these other places I’m like, this is horrible.
I deliberately put my – where my grandparents are from it’s like $60 a pound, it’s the world’s finest coffee – to the back burner. Because what I wanted to do is give people that third space. I don’t want to hop you up in the morning and I don’t want to dull you down at night. I want to give you a way to make conscious decisions about what you’re eating and drinking on a daily basis… And we’re going to do it together.
What, for me, is missing is physicians are telling people how to eat, how to drink and they’re saying, “Don’t.” Don’t eat this, don’t drink that. But they’re not saying what to have because in medical school you’re really missing nutritional information. What happens is that the role of an apothecary is missing. So CVS steps in as the apothecary and you have big pharma and little pharma outlets and that’s where people go to feel better. Let’s think about what you’re eating and drinking all day that might be exacerbating your anxiety or your inability to sleep or what’s making your cycle so heavy or your PMS so terrible. Or any number of things. We figure, we have the ability to help answer those questions.
How do you give people the advice they need? How do you decide what on your menu is going to help someone?
The menu is really there for reference. The first thing we do when people enter the space is we ask them, “How can we heal you today?” That very straight forward question allows them to ask themselves, “How do I need to feel?” Or “What is wrong?” It becomes a different interaction.
Sometimes people come in and want the most caffeinated thing on the menu and by the time they’ve finished ordering and we’ve talked it out for a minute, they’re getting Sweet Dreams tea or they’re getting the Last Good Nerve tea to wind down. That level of trust comes from what apothecaries used to have. My great grandfather was a pharmacist, which is a communal relationship. You have a community and you see people regularly. Some customers I see two or three times a week, they bring their children. Our job is to instill that level of trust, and it also comes from the product working. If it didn’t work, they would never come back.
How do you decide what goes on the menu? How did you refine your recipes?
I had about a 108 original teas and I had to figure out, which of these are sort of the same condition? If I have one for depression and I have one for anxiety, they’re actually flip sides of the same coin, so maybe that’s one thing. I have one for cold and flu and I have one for viruses, these are the same thing. So we started to merge like items to distill it down. There’s not that many things you can do to the human body, so you’ll see the same stuff over and over again. Okay cramps, PMS, PCOS, fibroids, that means we need a tea for womb healing and it doesn’t have to be metered out for each one.
After that distillation process, there may still be needs that people have that aren’t addressed by the template on the board, and then we can go into the lab and mix them something custom. That happens, but 97% of the time, it’s already been done. There’s very little someone can come in with that somebody else hasn’t already come in with.
Is everyone here trained to give advice and do the custom blends?
Extensively. On the bar, it takes months and months to train. You could work here for six months and still not really understand every element, but you will understand the basics. We will make sure you understand the top ten things people will ask you for.
For the custom blends, there are only a couple of us who do that. Myself, and then I have a couple of herbal apprentices. We work very closely in the garden together. We go pick things together, we talk about the energies of the herbs. For traditional people, plant medicine is not just physical medicine. It’s also psychospiritual. There’s no way to extract those things. Whether you’re a Native American person, which my family is, or you’re of African descent, which my family also is, or you’re of British descent, which my family is, and then you have druids and other people.
Everyone has a tradition of plant medicine and the respect for the plant. There’s always two or three older people in the community who have a full run of that knowledge, but it takes years to impart. I always say to my students, mastery can not be microwaved. There’s not overnight, there’s no quick course. People come and say, “My stomach is upset,” and I don’t just say, “Let me give you a tonic for your stomach.” I’m like, “Why? Was it something you ate? Is it your nerves?” My job then is to treat the nerves and not the stomach because the gut brain is having the reaction. We have to help people get back to the base cause and what’s on top of that.
You describe yourself as head witch, can you tell me about that title?
I feel like I have been a witch since my babyhood, and the women in my family as well, and some of the men. I want to re-embrace the idea of being magical, embracing you magical capabilities, intuition, ability to touch and heal people, have soothing conversations, your intuitive aspects. I think whatever your profession or job, we’ve been taught to doubt that. In relationships, anything. Your own intuition has been thrown off your entire life because people have told you to doubt those things. I want people to embrace that. I want people to embrace their ability to heal themselves.
My parents were activists and my mom was a Black Panther, self determination and sufficiency is apart of that. The idea that there was a time… Especially people of color under colonial rule had relationships with plants, animals, rocks, stones, the drum, anything and they were separated from those things. It causes a psychosis in you. You feel split. When we’re connected with those things, even if you’re just walking through the grass, it feels so different. It’s that connectivity that got a lot of us burned at the stake.
A lot of times people come in and I say, “I think this is what’s going on,” and they say, “How did you know?” I’ve had people burst in tears on the bar. If you want to make those human connections and open your empathy to see the person, that requires you to embrace your own magical capabilities instead of stuffing that down.
Are you still studying herbalism with anyone? Do you have a mentor?
I feel like I learn every day all the time. It’s funny, the vast majority of the information I receive, it may sound crazy to some people, I get a lot of very vivid dreams about herbs and gardens and plants. And then it happens to be so, when I wake up and look those things up. The way we see it from a Native American and African perspective is that, those ancestors who have crossed over the veil are still very interested in your learning. Imagine if your parents weren’t there tomorrow, they wouldn’t stop caring about you. And because they also care about the community, they know that an educated you is better for the community. A rising tide lifts all boats. They’re not going to let you walk around like a dummy.
Tell me about a recent dream you had.
I had a dream that my backyard was overgrown with peppermint, but when I stepped down and touched it, it smelled like lemon. So, I went down into my yard and lo and behold the peppermint was growing right next to lemon balm. They look almost identical. I had no idea that it was there, but it was like the plant had spoken to me in my sleep. It’s right under my window, but it’s not something you can smell unless you’ve touched it. That kind of thing was great because I happened to need lemon balm for a blend and my supplier in the pacific northwest was out. It was like the plant was like, “Hi!”
Whenever I’m feeling out of sorts, [my backyard] is the place that restores me. My great grandmother used to say that the link between the divine and humans is the plant. When you’re out of touch with your gounding, it’s the thing that can ground you. When you need to feel lifted, it’ll lift you. It’s something that can put you back in homeostasis.
You’ve mentioned love and I know you guys have aphrodisiacs. What’s up with them?
We do. That’s another thing that can be different depending on what your desire is. Some people come in and say, “Can I have some of this love potion tea?” My grandmother used to say it was cupid in a cup… But what I’m reading on the person is that there’s some heartache that hasn’t been healed and it’s going to be very hard for them to push into that space in a clear way. We have a tea called Heartache Healer and sometimes that’s what I start with. When I say, “Let’s start with the Heartache Healer, we need to clean house first,” what I find interesting is their willingness to say, “You’re right, I did break up with somebody.” That gives us our moment to chat about it, they have some tea, it’s cathartic for them and it makes them more mindful. [The heart] has to get cleaned first, you can’t invite someone into this place when it’s not cleaned out. They’re going to be sitting on old piles of books and boxes that the last person left. You’ve got to get that stuff out.
We’ve had people meet here and get married. They have their first date here and then they’re engaged and we celebrated that with tea. We’ve had at least five or six people. We’re like those aunties that are way too involved. “We don’t like him for you… I have someone for you!”
Do you matchmake a lot?
I’m an incurable matchmaker. I may not be any good at it, but that does not stop me.
Do you matchmake with your customers?
All the time! “You need to meet so and so, just come in for tea, we won’t even say it’s a date.” I’ve had people get married, that I’ve introduced, and I’ve had people who will never speak to each other again. You don’t know what you’re going to get! But it could work out. I don’t promise results.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Long days. I love people, I love talking to them and I love problem solving with them, but the hardest thing is the long days and hiring the right people. This job is a mission. If the people here don’t have mission affinity, it makes it very difficult for us. We need to focus on helping the people and I want to always focus on that. It makes the days long because I wouldn’t trust my customers to anyone. So sometimes that means we’re pulling longer hours than other people would in bars or coffee shops. We’re here because I want to make sure that everybody is getting top shelf service. We’re here to heal the people, so we take it seriously.