The first words out of Will Otero's mouth are "my mother." They're in response to a question about how he started his business. They're also his most frequently used words during our visit. By the eight or ninth mention of his mama, she appears in the doorway, as he said she would.
Will recalls the origins of his business with a story about his mother. Nine years ago, he was all set to open a coffee and crepe shop when Carmen Otero reminded him, "You don't even like coffee, stupid!" And with that little prompt (and an extraordinary amount of hard work) Leland Tea Company was born.
Will is the latest interviewee for our Meet the Neighbors series, which features local businesses near the San Francisco City Center Hostel. He's a good Puerto Rican son, constantly jiving his elderly mother in an affectionate way. And Carmen, never one to miss a beat, gives it right back to him. Their dynamic is lively and familiar -- more like old friends than a mother and son. On the day of our interview, Will is wearing a tea-shirt (literally, a shirt with a tea cup graphic on it) and Carmen is draped in a blue and white checkered apron, ready to work. They make quite a pair, and even at age 81, Carmen is in the kitchen, sleeves rolled up, slicing, dicing, and bossing everyone around. The business that Will built, with the help of his mother and some other friends and family members, is a true labor of love. He's there almost every day, working the counter, mixing tea, and picking up menu ingredients from the farmer's market. He started the business with only $10,000 to his name, and last year he opened his second location in Burlingame.
Will is a consummate tea drinker and the creator of all 60 tea blends available at his shop. He visited many other tea shops in San Francisco before opening his own, and found the dollhouse tea-party thing to be a little too feminine, and not at all comfortable. He decided to open a space for the less dainty tea aficionado. "Tea for two at Leland's will feed two of my people," he says. Whether Will is referring to tall people or Puerto Rican people, it doesn't matter -- the point is that at Leland's the sandwich and salad portions are designed to be meals, not snacks.
The space itself is big and open, with exposed copper beams, brick walls, and minimal decor that make it intentionally gender-neutral. There are no doilies or mismatched china teacups here. The shop is housed in the Leland Building at 1416 Bush Street; it was originally constructed in 1909 and has burned down twice. All that remains of the original structure are two multi-colored walls at the front of the shop, which lend a vintage feel to the place.
There are other details that allude both to the building's historic roots and Will's scrappy, DIY design sense. "Everything in here was a gift... or we found it somewhere." A particularly special feature is an old cast-iron bell, circa the early 1800s, that was found in the basement of the building. It's inscribed in Latin: "He who touches me shall hear my voice." Will guesses that it fell through the floors of the building during one of the fires, landing in the basement where he found it years later.
Will considers his shop to be an extension of his home. When people walk in the door he greets them with a jovial, welcome-to-my-living-room smile. A huge advocate of the community, he lives just half a block away from Leland Tea Company and believes ardently that "the businesses make the neighborhood." He works tirelessly to make his (and our) neighborhood a little bit sweeter -- and it certainly smells lovely with aromatic whiffs of sugar, butter, and spice wafting from his shop.
In Will's words, the whole store, from the DIY design to the tea blends and the menu, is something he created "from pieces." "It's an interesting blend," he says -- a very accurate description indeed.
Leland's serves a variety of specialty tea blends (like our favorite, the Grey's Kelley with earl grey and lavender), salads, sandwiches, and fresh baked goods. They're open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.The shop is 6 blocks from the hostel and is a great place to sip some tea, read a guidebook, and plan your next adventure. Also, there's free wifi!
This article is the fifth in a series profiling the local businesses that neighbor the San Francisco City Center Hostel. We met up at Yemeni's last time, and before that we visited Olive Bar, Hyde Away Blues BBQ, and Hooker's Sweet Treats.
If You Go
Stay at the San Francisco City Center Hostel, in the heart of an exciting, urban neighborhood filled with local gems.