Leanne will take care of ya
Leanne will take care of ya
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

On the Line: Leanne Herrera of Zama Tea & Kombucha

If you asked me to explain what Kombucha was, I'd have to refer you to Leanne. Because as much as I enjoy sipping it, she is my go-to for all things SCOBY. I drop by Old Town Tustin shortly after Zama's one year anniversary to savor a flight of the bubbly stuff and to learn more about Leanne and her business.

One misconception people have about Kombucha, and what's the actual fact:
That it is a mushroom tea. Kombucha is actually a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY). But I will tell people SCOBY looks like a mushroom or a white, rubbery pancake. Many countries call Kombucha by names that can literally translate to mushroom. Being that yeast is in the fungus family, which includes mushrooms, SCOBY and mushrooms are often thought of as one and the same, but in fact they are distinct and different substances.

What's the best-selling booch? And what's your personal favorite?
It's a toss up between Pearadise, which is a pear, guava, passionfruit and blackberries concoction, and Coconut Jubilee, which is coconut, lime and cherry combination. My all-time favorite is Cilantro Jalapeno, but a close second is Blackberry Grapefruit.

How do you come up with flavors? What's currently on tap?
I LOVE, LOVE to play with new flavors. We are up to 81 different ones. I experiment with the ingredients, looking for a balance of different fruits, which add natural sweetness, floral combinations for an aromatic component (which to me, adds some romance), spices which can "kick up the sassiness", and the medical benefits of various organic herbs to create something new for people to enjoy and hopefully benefit from. We steep or infuse these ingredients to create some of my favorite flavors. Our production room becomes a science laboratory every week. Lately, I've been letting my team help come up with the flavors, which has been a lot of fun seeing what they can imagine.

On tap right now (which can change about every two hours or less) we have Pearadise, Root Booch, Citizen Kane, Blackberry Grapefruit, Ginger, Cilantro Jalapeno, Margaret's Mint Julep, Blueberry Lavender, and Peach and Coconut Jubilee. On deck is Ginger Mango Habanero, Spring Fling, Elderberry Hibiscus, and Ilex Forest.

Remind me where the Zama name comes from.
My dad was a Sergeant First Class in the Army during the Korean War, stationed at Camp Zama, on the Japanese island of Okinawa. I was actually born there. I wanted a name for my business that was part of my life's journey, so I incorporated Zama into that name.

Most undervalued ingredient.
Tea leaves. They are the basis and probably the most important ingredient in our Kombucha. We could never make the high-quality Kombucha we sell without the organic varieties we use. We blend fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers with the tea leaves. We either juice, steep or infuse these high-quality ingredients to flavor our Kombucha, but the quality of the tea remains the foundation of everything we do and can't be undervalued.

Why did you choose to open a tea and Kombucha shop?
After owning and operating different home-based businesses while my kids were growing up, I developed a rare disease that is usually treated with chemotherapy. I was not excited about undergoing the recommended treatment, so I began to study tea and herbs looking for an alternative. I discovered the therapeutic benefits of different teas and Kombucha during my research. The use of Kombucha as part of my own treatment plan became part of my daily routine, and has provided positive health benefits for me.

After my personal experiences with various teas and Kombuchas, I developed a passion to share my experiences with others searching for alternative choices and a healthier lifestyle. After selling my products at various farmer's markets for two years, the Booch bar seemed like the most logical way to take things to the next level and introduce our products to a broader range of people than we could reach with our traveling road show.

Keeping it real in Old Town Tustin
Keeping it real in Old Town Tustin
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Tell me the story about how you acquired the materials for your tables.
We wanted to use recycled materials. I had pallets in mind, but they were hard to come by. We were collecting one or two at a time as we found them abandoned in lots or trash cans (dumpster diving was not beneath me). We then came across a business that had a stash of pallets under their parking structure. I made my husband go to the door to ask if we could buy them, and the guy ran and locked the door and closed the curtains.

That was weird, so my husband called the number on the "For Lease" sign, only to have the gentleman that locked the door answer and explain that he thought we were from the city. Apparently, the city had been fining him for having too much junk on the property. When we mentioned we needed the pallets, he said, "Grab a truck and meet me here on Saturday, and I will help you load them up." We got 111 pallets, and we used them to make the bar, the tables, the outside table on our cute dog-friendly patio, the counter where the register sits, picture frames, growler shelves, etc. We really hit the jackpot, and the guy turned out to be really, really nice.

I'd like to know more about the history of the building you're in.
The small, single-storied Italianate storefront was built in 1885 and was Dr. James Sheldon's office. This was the first doctor's office in Tustin. Florence Stone, the postmistress, owned the building from 1920 to 1924. Mrs. Ernie Crawford used the building for Crawford's Frock Shop in the 1930s, and added the front display windows. The small building was rented and then purchased by Margaret Pottenger (who our Kombucha flavor, Margaret's Mint Julep, is named after). She opened the Jabberwocky on April 18, 1959, which became the destination for teenage girls looking for prom gowns and graduation dresses.

Over the years, Jabberwocky fashion shows were held at the Curtain Call Theater, Jamestown Village Theatre, Knights of Pythias Hall, the Stevens Square gazebo, Tustin Community Center, even Tustin City Council Chambers and at the middle schools and both high schools in Tustin. Personal appearances by prominent recording artists including The Beach Boys, as well as great clothes, made these events memorable. After Miss Pottenger retired, she leased the store to The Vintage Lady. In 2011, there was a fire that, unfortunately, destroyed a good a good portion of the building. It was rebuilt by Margaret, her family and the community. Zama Tea is the first occupant since the building was repaired after the fire. And Margaret is our landlord and lives behind us in a cute little house.

Most difficult thing about opening up a storefront.
Balancing the different hats a business owner wears every day, like keeping up with demand and developing a cohesive team to meet that demand, without compromising our values of using high-quality, locally grown and imported organic products in our small batch, hand-crafted kegs of Kombucha and tea blends; while at the same time maintaining profitability. Keeping plugged in to the community and giving back through financially supporting and volunteering for various causes and organizations is also part of our business model and blueprint for success.

Team Zama
Team Zama
Photo by Brian Feinzimer

Don't you also serve food?
We do. We have sandwiches, salads, hummus and coconut fermented yogurt, which are all made in-house from scratch. We also have some delicious soup options, which are handmade by Three Pug Bakery, who bakes all of our delicious baked goodies. We have several vegan and gluten-free options and PB&J for the kids.

Let's discuss your selection of teas. Approximately how many are in your inventory, and is it true that customers can order any tea in your inventory as a cup/glass of tea (hot and cold)?
Absolutely. We have over 165 different teas and herbs from all over the world. We usually have a few on tap, but we specialize in making your custom blend from anything you choose from our "tea wall", whether it's a cup of iced tea or a pot of hot tea for two. And then we sell it packaged as well, so you can leave with a bag of high-quality tea leaves to brew at home or work.

Favorite places to eat:
My all-time favorite? A little hot dog stand that sits at the bottom of the steps of the Science Museum in Chicago, Illinois, right across from Soldier Field. Best Chicago dog in the world. Locally, American Grub in Old Town Tustin, Original Roadhouse Grill in Whittier or anyplace that serves quality lobster, crab or shrimp.

Last thing you looked up online.
What's the best way to find a professional to help me grow my business that makes the most financial sense for now and for retirement.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bellflower, California. After my dad got an honorable discharge from the army, he went to work for NASA as an engineer in Downey. My husband and I currently live in Hacienda Heights with our Grand-dogger Jack, but I always knew my business would be in OC. All but one of my 10 farmer's markets were in OC. My husband happened upon our current location in Old Town Tustin while on his way to meet a client.

What's your favorite childhood memory?
Camping in a tent. Favorite place: Wheeler Gorge in Ojai, California. We used to go as a family to some of the coolest places up and down the coast of California, but Ojai's creek was the best. Getting out of elementary school at noon instead of three on a Friday afternoon was such a treat. As I watched out the classroom window for my dad to pull the truck up to the curb, I would get the goosebumps knowing that Sr. Rita (I went to a Catholic school) would walk into the classroom at any moment to let me out of class. I would run as fast as I could down the hall because I knew the next three days would be an adventure that would become my best memories.

Favorite meal growing up:
My Mom's homemade pizza. When I was little, I loved the pizza but hated the crust. As an adult I loved that, too. Dinner was the best because the whole family was together after we kids finished our homework.

Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I can type about 160 wpm; probably faster, now that there is auto spellcheck (giggles). I used to be a medical transcriber. I can pitch a mean fastball, having played for 25 years. I can change a diaper, cook dinner, throw in a load of laundry and fold it, carry you on my hip, read a book to you and act out the characters, wash and feed the dog, make sure you do your homework, give you advice about life, tell you whether or not to stay or breakup with your guy or gal, let you vent on me just because you need a friend and live my dream every day as I walk into my store, all without even taking a breath. How's that for multi-tasking?

You're making breakfast; what are you having?
First of all, it's usually not me making my breakfast. On the days I do get to grab a bite before I leave, my amazing husband will scramble some egg whites and turkey sausage, and cut a mango for me that I will eat while drying my hair.

Hardest lesson you've learned:
Life is short. My dad was taken from me when he was 48, and my mom passed away too early, in my opinion. God blessed me with this business for a reason, so I have a lot to do and no time to waste. Other than being a mom, which is the most fulfilling and amazing job I have ever had, I didn't know what I really wanted to be when I grew up until I was almost 53 years old.

What would you like to be doing if you weren't in this business?
I'm not going to lie. I would sleep most of the time, at least for a while, and organize my home office. And then I would win the lottery so I didn't have to work, and I could spend some time sitting and holding sick babies who have no family, or hold the hands of the sick and elderly that are leaving this Earth and have no one at their side.

I would also like to be involved with Dogs on Deployment. Dogs on Deployment is a non-profit providing a central network for military members to find volunteers to board their pets while they are deployed or have other service commitments. I love dogs, so I think this would be so amazing to do. I have only volunteered through my church, but really want to do more after I retire.

Zama Tea and Kombucha is located at 434 El Camino Real in Tustin, (714) 884-3449; www.zamatea.com.

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