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Vintage Fork restaurateur uses tea to keep business alive through COVID-19

Edmonton Journal logo Edmonton Journal 2021-03-12 Tom Murray
a man and a woman sitting on a table: Sarah and Salar Melli are the proprietors of Vintage Fork Loose Leaf Tea and work from their Edmonton home selling tea on their website. © Provided by Edmonton Journal Sarah and Salar Melli are the proprietors of Vintage Fork Loose Leaf Tea and work from their Edmonton home selling tea on their website.

When COVID-19 forced his successful restaurant in Rutherford House to shut down, Salar Melli pivoted to the next logical step: selling tea online.

That might not be an obvious direction to take, but in Melli’s case, it made a great deal of sense. Having already cultivated a dedicated crowd for Vintage Fork’s weekend high-tea service, Melli was stuck with a considerable supply of dried leaves when everything fell apart last March.

Located within the Rutherford House museum on the U of A campus, which the provincial government’s department of heritage and culture oversaw at the time, Vintage Fork was shut completely, unlike other restaurants that were allowed to offer delivery and pick-up services.  So, it took the entrepreneur and chef a few months to go through his inventory only to realize the boxes he had in the back room were a treasure trove.

“I actually first tried a pizza delivery place we called Joe West Pizza,” chuckles Melli, who immigrated to Canada from Iran in 2009 to work at Sorrentino’s, moving on to Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse and then Select Restaurant before opening his own fine-dining establishment in 2017. “We went with a Chicago deep dish style because I looked around and there were plenty of thin-crust places. Unfortunately, the market is saturated with pizza, and it’s hard to beat prices from big chains.”

When Melli’s business partner asked what should be done with the sizable inventory of tea, he offhandedly suggested it be sold online. To everyone’s surprise, the orders began piling in — the pandemic apparently not dampening people’s enthusiasm for oolong, chai mate or Earl Grey. Melli reconfigured the Vintage Fork website to reflect the new business, shut down his pizza operation, and rode the wave.

He’ll be attempting to do the same as he runs for city council in Ward Metis (7) this fall, hoping to use his talent for “solution-based thinking” in the neighbourhood he proudly calls home. We spoke with Melli about Vintage Fork, both the restaurant and the now popular tea company, which delivers locally for free (same day before 3 p.m.) and nationwide.  

Q Closing the Vintage Fork restaurant must have been painful given you were only a few years into it. Yes?

A At the time, it was very grim. We opened it on a credit card and went into serious financial pain just catching up on it. It had won best cafe from the Tripadvisor website, which to me is a strong indicator that people liked it, and we won at Taste of Edmonton last year. It was like we had planted a seed, watered and grew it to become a tree, and as soon as there was fruit to bear someone came along and cut it down.  

Q Why weren’t you allowed to do take out or delivery at Rutherford House?

A They basically told me that it wasn’t their mandate, that the restaurant was meant to bring people into Rutherford House. That was tough, knowing that I would work hard for people that only cared for a mandate. In the end, it probably worked out for the best because restaurants are not big money makers.

Q Why did you choose pizza when you left Rutherford House?

A I wanted to do something simple, something that didn’t have to have a storefront. It was a ghost kitchen experiment. My wife and I bought a heritage house so that was somewhere to work out of; we love those old historical places, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to be in Rutherford House in the first place.  

Q The change to selling tea online must have been a surprise in a year full of surprises. Yes?

A I honestly didn’t know that tea was such a big thing here, even when we served it at the restaurant. They’re not just after the fancier teas, either, we sell a lot of Earl Grey. When we saw that it was a profitable venture, we started growing it as a platform.

Q Was it difficult to make the shift?

A Not really, because I like building websites and content making. I worked on the Vintage Fork website and learned how to do e-commerce, and we set up a delivery system.

Q Working from home must be something of a shock after years of 16-hour days at restaurants.

A You know, I missed three years of my daughter’s life because I was always working. When I got home she was always sleeping, of course. That’s why part of me thinks that this may have been the best thing to happen because now I have time to spend with my family. The restaurant was a great experience and I don’t regret it, but I don’t think I could have continued doing the work I was doing.

 yegarts@postmedia.com

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