Quietly occupying a mostly empty Lynnwood parking lot, Tobi’s Tea is a small, tranquil tea shop. The interior is opulent and unassuming – three wooden tables, six chairs and a wall of plants.
Despite its understated appearance, Tobi’s is ambitious in its approach to gourmet beverages, using uncommon ingredients like honeycomb, ube and dalgona (whipped coffee) in its specialty drinks. Owner Cheryl Lam, a Yorkie lover who moved to Washington from California in 2021, says she wanted to build something different.
“I wanted to stray away from syrups and sugars,” she says. Lam says that there’s nothing wrong with additives, but she prefers to make things fresh, with little added sugar.
While the tea offerings are a little longer to make, the flavors are more refreshing, which Lam believes makes the extra trouble worth it. The flavors themselves are inspired from her Vietnamese background and travels in Asia.
Lam was also particular about her equipment, which caused a headache when prepping for the shop’s opening in 2022. Importing machinery and some ingredients was especially burdensome as the world faced pandemic-related shortages.
And then there were the startup costs. As the co-owner of another drink shop when she lived in California, Lam expected to be “bleeding money” the first year.
Located at 40th Avenue Southwest and 196th Street Southwest near Dania Furniture, Tobi’s Tea is in the heart of Lynnwood, which puts it in a promising but challenging spot.
While the city is experiencing exponential growth, new apartments – including one right across 40th – are being built. City councilmembers and planners are working on making Lynnwood more walkable, which they hope will encourage more social and retail activity in the area. The emerging city center has big plans, like a new park and more transit options. Those new faces and lifestyle options make for a golden opportunity … in the future.
For now, there are logistical difficulties. While Tobi’s is situated on the busiest road in the city – 196th – the shopping mall faces away from the street; Drivers can’t see the shop unless they venture into the desolate parking lot. Not many in Lynnwood are walking around the area looking for a nice place to get a drink.
“I hate finding a place to park,” Lam joked about her choice of location. When she and her family/business partners were looking for locations, there was a time crunch and not too many options they could choose from. So when they found a decently sized unit, they jumped on the opportunity.
Despite her situation, Lam remains optimistic, saying she is excited for the future of the city and Tobi’s Tea – and she hopes to one day open a second store.
— Photos and story by Jasmine Contreras-Lewis