Loose leaf heaven – Na Tra Tea’s

IMAGES: Photos of Na Tra Tea’s by Bill Brown.


MAR 10 — At last, a local cafe that knows how to serve tea. Most cafes, coffee-houses and restaurants will hand the customer a rapidly cooling cup of warm water and direct them to a box of packaged tea-bags.

Na Tra Tea’sh makes tea properly. There are no tea bags in sight. The organic loose-leaf tea is spooned from big jars. The hot water – boiling for black tea, slightly cooled for most green teas – is poured directly over the leaves. The tea is steeped from two to five minutes depending on the type, then poured from the pot to a cup. If the costumer wants something special, for example an herbal spice tea with a caffeine kick, the herbal tea is poured into a cup through a small black-tea-filled strainer.

Owner Aster Tefera prepares each pot of tea carefully. The pots are designed specifically for tea-brewing – with built-in infusion baskets below the center opening so hot water pours directly onto the tea leaves.

Na Tra Tea’s is in a cozy building on Erie Avenue just off Flower Avenue, around the corner from a block of small store fronts on Flower. The name is derived from the word “natra,” the Ethopian word for cinnamon bark. Tefera is Ethiopian, though she has lived in the area for decades.


Na Tra Tea’s owner Aster Tefera brews a pot of tea. Photo by Bill Brown.

She serves caffeinated and herbal teas – and some combinations of both such as an Indian-style chai made with black tea and spices. Offerings include: Earl Grey, breakfast, Sencha, jasmine, dark-roast Oolong, coconut, white Peony, two styles of chai, chamomile, peppermint and blood orange.

Na Tra also serves regular coffee. On occasion – this coming Sunday, perhaps, she said – Tefera prepares coffee in the ceremonial Ethiopian manner. Ethiopian coffee pots and cups sit on shelves at the back of the shop.

Cold sodas and juices are available, as are pastries, cookies, organic nibbles such as nuts and dried fruit and energy bars.

Na Tra Tea’s at 720 Erie Ave., Takoma Park, MD, is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.  240-305-5233.

At age 65 Tefera is not a seasoned business-person. She deferred a career for fifteen years, caring for her bed-ridden mother in Silver Spring, MD.

She described her former life, “I am suffocated fifteen years with my mother in the house. I will not go out, my life is my mom.”

She wanted a new life out in the community where she could talk to people. she said. Last year with her brothers’ grateful financial support she opened her tea shop.


Former city councilmember Reuben Snipper, owner Aster Tefera, Ward 5 councilmember Jarrett Smith and owner’s cousin Roman Mezmur, who helps out at the cafe. Photo by Bill Brown.

It was not easy. She knew next-to-nothing about opening a business. Setting out, she had no business plan and had little idea of the requirements and regulations involved. Even with family funding she had little capital – certainly not enough to pay an architect $5000 – $10,000 for a required interior design, an unexpected cost.

“A very, very good person helped me, Mister John helped me.” she said.

Takoma Park architect John Mangan, whose Mangan Group Architects office is above the Carroll Avenue Amano storefront, provided her a design for no charge.

Tefera said Mongan told her “I will find some student to help you,” but he did the work himself.

The shop opened in August, serving a steady but growing trickle of neighbors, students from nearby Washington Adventist University and friends. She had to close in February due to an injury – Tefera slipped on ice during the big “Snowzilla” snowstorm and hurt her back.

Local writer and editor Joan Dawson discovered Na Tra Tea’s recently when her home internet went out. She enjoyed both the free wi-fi and Ethopian-style spice tea. She was back for her second day of internet outage March 10, settling in at her laptop and ordering another pot of spice tea.


Mayor Kate Stewart, at far left, and Councilmember Jarrett Smith at far right chat with residents and former councilmember Reuben Snipper (center, facing camera) at Na Tra Tea’s March 4, 2016. Photo by Bill Brown.

The previous Friday, early in the morning when a picturesque overnight snowfall had yet to melt and fall from branches and telephone lines, Tefera passed out small shot glasses of her tangy blood-orange herbal tea to a crowd of residents and city officials gathered at Tra Na Tea’s for the mayor’s second “community coffee” gathering.

Takoma Park mayor Kate Stewart, Ward 5 council member Jarrett Smith, city manager Suzanne Ludlow and deputy city manger local councilmember and residents. The local council member present at Na Tra Tea’s on that day – March 4 – was Jarrett Smith, Ward 5 representative.

About eight residents dropped by, including former Ward 5 council member Rueben Snipper.

Some of the issues discussed involved the Washington Adventist University and Washington Adventist Hospital, which have adjoining campuses in Ward 5.


Flower Avenue storefront of concern to residents. Photo by Bill Brown.

WAU owns the corner building, once a neighborhood grocery /convenience store, fronting Flower Avenue at Erie Avenue. Some of the residents are concerned that the new tenant is an organization providing services to the homeless. There is already a half-way house in the neighborhood, said resident Marty Ittiney.

Construction on the WAU campus was a concern. There was an exchange of views on marijuana dispensaries. And the growing number of Takoma Park’s “airbnb”s was discussed.

Tefera, smiling broadly, placed plates of cookies and dried fruit on the cafe-tables, passed tea samples around and took orders at the counter. She was relishing all the people and talk in her new life.

About the Author

Bill Brown
Bill Brown moved to Takoma Park in 1982. He has been involved in journalism in one way or another since he co-published an underground high-school newspaper in the late 1960s.

6 Comments on "Loose leaf heaven – Na Tra Tea’s"

  1. Dr. Troy Jacobs | March 12, 2016 at 2:37 pm |

    Thanks for writing this story! It emphasizes the vitality and strengths of our local diverse Ethiopian communities. We want to encourage such resources in our neighborhoods. Our immigrant communities are important. Given Na Tra Tea’s location is completely surrounded by roof cleaning, plumbing, and gas businesses it is a bit of a location mismatch and challenging to get the attention it deserves. It is also ward 5 and the rest of Takoma Park rarely comes here. Hopefully this article will cue others that don’t live in our ward to visit this business. The article didn’t capture the uncanny deaths of the trees connected to adjacent businesses — possibly due to inattention and dumping of various wastes on their sites – but maybe the season makes it hard to notice. Finally, Washington Adventist University owns not just the corner at 8000 Flower Ave but all of the buildings from 8000-8006 Flower Avenue. There are a host of concerns with the 8000-8006 Flower Avenue properties. Hopefully this foray to our ward with the Na Tra Tea visit is the start of more meaningful engagement on use of the Erie/Flower commercial zone and its fit into the Takoma Park community.

  2. I’m not sure why an article on a teahouse would discuss arboreal issues in the neighborhood, but WAU owns all of those rundown commercial properties? That area has potential. The nearby commercial areas at Flower and Piney Branch are actually looking up, and there will eventually be Purple Line stops. I think that the county and city should partner to buy and fix up the Flower Theatre and then use it for performance arts space for local groups and the university. People like Dan Reed! actually did a lot of study of the issue and then it went nowhere. It would be an infinitely better use of funds than the library expansion.

  3. Dr. Troy Jacobs | March 13, 2016 at 9:33 am |

    Dying trees and waste dumping? There are at least two reasons: (1) as they would say in Africa, it is but the eye of the hippo (or the tip of your iceberg). These become sentinel events for bigger issues in the built environment that impact the economic growth, safety, and health of little businesses like Na Tra Tea. Being more systematic about it can benefit immigrant and low-income communities. Look at work done with health impact assessments for example (2) my own experience is these are understandable and fundable. I was very successful at receiving funding from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Endowment, HRSA, and CDC on these “culture of health” issues. Some of us are already pursuing this modestly – via avenues like Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and smaller local funding sources. Good progress is being made.

    I agree with your comments regarding potential of Flower/Piney Branch commercial area. With the Purple Line and the Flower Avenue green-street there is potential to change the built environment and impact economic growth, safety, and health of the community. Unfortunately, without being proactive and systematic, the best of intentions and potential will not necessarily materialize or even benefit low income and immigrant community members.

    Finally, the Erie/Flower commercial area is tiny and over 1 mile from Flower/Piney Branch. It requires a bit of a leap to connect the two areas as walkable. It is concerning that WAU plans to place felon and sex offender support groups in 8000 Flower. How does that impact businesses like Na Tra Tea next door? There hasn’t been much systematic thinking about this commercial area, how the various businesses and activities fit together or fit into the community. Needs more scrutiny to start.

  4. Perhaps the tree issue would be better suited for a separate, follow-up article (it is good to see the Voice get out and about around town).

    I view those commercial properties as being related to the Flower/Piney Branch area (Google maps has it being an 11 minute walk of 0.6 miles). One impediment to walkability has been the deplorable conditions of the sidewalks in that part of town. Wasn’t there a plan for the city and SHA to swap that stretch of “state highway” and improve the sidewalks as part of the process?

    As for undesirable uses, I have long said that Wards 4-6 are the dumping grounds for undesirable uses while Wards 1-3 get all of the attention and concern. Look at the discussion of the medical marijuana dispensary non-issue that somehow necessitates consideration of the provisions of the overlay zone for precious Old Takoma and its pampered youngsters. Meanwhile, I haven’t heard a word about this halfway house, which would appear to be a substantive concern.

    Of course, what’s truly remarkable is the lack of economic impact that the hospital has had, in large part by design or lack thereof. I can’t imagine things are going to get much better. I’d like to see something like a small government agency take up residence on that site to make good use of space in our urban, transit-oriented setting and stimulate local economic growth. Unfortunately, I think that many nearby residents are thinking in terms of five houses and a coffee shop and would still consider that to be overdevelopment.

  5. Dr. Troy Jacobs | March 13, 2016 at 11:34 pm |

    Agree the simple distance to the Flower/Piney Branch intersection is 0.6 mi and we were considering other points within the two different commercial areas for the purposes of walkability and functionality. Regarding whether these two areas are connected and what should be the relevant metrics, I will opt to other expertise, especially as recommended by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others who fund this type of work. Hint: if you want to get funded, you need to be thinking in terms of 5-min and 10-min walking distances for healthy adults — but of course mindful to adjust if you have sizeable populations of children, disabled adults, or elderly.

    The “swap” did occur with SHA and the City. Nevertheless, the actual work associated with the swap is still forthcoming (in 2017 or later). There are semi-final plans (May 2015) for the Flower Avenue “Green Street” posted on the City website somewhere for interested readers. It figures a little into local ruminations — along with the Purple Line — but these are such slow moving projects it is easy to lose sight of them.

  6. Joan Dawson | March 16, 2016 at 3:49 pm |

    I really enjoyed my visits to Na Tra Tea’s when my Internet connection was down – I didn’t mind at all that it was out for 5 days! The tea was delicious, the surroundings pleasant, and NaTra is such a sweet woman. I look forward to going back and trying other tea varieties.

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