Christian Infante is 37 years old and has lived in Westchester his whole life. He says there were few restaurant options besides fast food and Latin cuisine while growing up there.
Twelve years ago, he decided to change that.
He aimed to start an interesting spot where customers could hang out while enjoying organic and eco-friendly products.
“I wanted to create a place that I could have enjoyed when I was in high school and college,” Infante said. “Back when we opened in 2009, we were the only local coffee and tea shop in the area and the only restaurant dedicated to using environmentally friendly products.”
These days, SpecialTEA Lounge & Café, located at 10766 Coral Way, offers clients 54 kinds of earth-friendly tea and 10 different entrees from the aye chihuahua, a healthier version of the Chipotle bowl, to the hunny brisket, smoked meat, goat cheese spinach and more. Each one comes in four different styles: panini, wrap, bowl and salad.
Most of the products are made in-house with locally obtained ingredients. Infante said almost everything is made from scratch, whether it’s dressings, guacamole or even cookies.
Gina Lipscomb, 21, is a loyal customer who is a senior at Florida International University. She has lived in the area for about three years, and frequently orders the coco-curry wrap, which includes a spicy chicken curry base, spring mix, tomatoes and comes with a side of a sweet coconut lassi dipping sauce. She is also a devotee of the frozen matcha blended with boba.
Lipscomb, who is originally from California, said it’s much easier to find places like SpecialTEA back home. She either stops by or orders online about three times a week.
“It’s the tea, the people and the fact that I feel I’m helping the environment,” Lipscomb said.
Two reasons SpecialTEA has become so special for many clients are the wide variety of options on the menu and the relaxed environment, she added.
Matt Frizzell, 22, has been a regular customer for four years and is originally from Colorado. Restaurants like SpecialTEA are hard to come by in Aurora, the city where he was raised. He orders from SpecialTEA almost every week.
Frizzell said he has tried most of the food options on the menu. His favorite is the chicken-bacon ranch wrap, which includes chicken, smoked bacon, homemade ranch dressing, cheddar cheese and spring mix. To go with his meal, he likes the iced boba Thai milk tea.
“The fact that SpecialTEA is located so close to me and the food and drinks are so tasty and affordable makes it hard not to spend my money there,” Frizzell added.
Farah Khan, 30, has worked at SpecialTEA for eight years and is currently the store manager.
She said some of its most popular teas are the Asian Pear, Strawberry Fields Honeybush and Hibiscus Herbal, all among the healthiest options.
Those looking for something more exotic should try the Lapsang Souchong, Khan says.
“It is one of our most unique teas, and I’m sure everyone that works here would agree to that,” Khan said. “It reminds me of a campfire, and other people say it tastes like leather.”
She said the place usually chooses new teas by trial and error. For example, there are 10 tea groups. For each one, they start with a plain flavor and then branch out into fruity options and more unique flavors. For instance, there is conventional oolong, but also vanilla hazelnut oolong.
When COVID-19 hit last year, the business struggled financially, she says. But then after a few months, they managed to get third-party delivery systems, such as Uber Eats. Most customers remained loyal. No employees were laid-off.
Madi Daum, 25, has been a customer for the past six years. She was very upset when the county banned indoor seating last year. She has lived in Sweetwater for the past eight years and says SpecialTEA was the first place she became a regular customer at.
“SpecialTEA is unique because they have over a dozen different board games,” Daum said. “I remember this one time during Halloween they put out a carved pumpkin and everyone that came in was signing their name and drawing cool things on the pumpkin.”
It was hard for her not being able to visit and enjoy her food and drink while lounging on the comfy couches playing Uno, she added.
Gio Jimenez has been with the company for about five years as the shift leader. He said the store mainly targets younger customers because they tend to be more environmentally conscious.
“I’d hope the store makes everyone a bit more concerned about how we treat our planet,” he added.
Jimenez said that approximately 100 people of different backgrounds and ages visit the store each day.
“We have many teas for many things,” Jimenez said. “Many foods for different dudes.”