When you first walk into Maté Factor Café, you can’t help but feel like you’re in a fairy tale tree house. The place appears as if it were built centuries ago; the woodwork, walls, and beams are all cut by hand, breathing a certain antiquity into the place. Wrought iron accents, including a spiral staircase that takes you up to another small seating area, are all custom made.
The decor is simple, yet beautiful in its own right. Small barrels have been flipped over to serve as lampshades and there are chests that serve as side tables to leather chairs slightly cracked from customers lingering a bit too long. Freshly baked loaves of bread stacked on the wall accompany the locally made teapots that would make Beauty and the Beast’s Belle squeal in happiness.
If you come midday, the place will be packed. Dogs and their owners enjoying the curbside seats, students furiously typing away on their Macs, and elderly couples talking in hushed voices.
The Goods That Keep Customers
Kate Sours, a regular at the shop, is originally from England—a country known for tea. Once she relocated to Savannah and discovered the shop, she too fell in love with the café’s atmosphere.
“I appreciate the time, attention, and hard work that it took to build the place,” Sours comments.
While her adventurous spirit first led her to try as many restaurants in her as possible in Savannah, including this tea shop, the service and tasty goods she found there kept her coming back.
“Whenever I ask about the drinks and baked goods, employees are always happy to explain the ingredients are ethically and consciously sourced so that makes me happy to support a unique local business,” Sours states.
Over time, Sours, like many other customers, became curious about what made maté tea different from other caffeinated drinks.
“Drinking their tea prompted me to educate myself about the health benefits of maté and the drinking traditions associated with it.”
As Sours and other customers would find out, maté tea leaves carry more antioxidants than green tea. It is these antioxidants that are supposed to provide a mental clarity that coffee simple does not offer.
But there’s a lot more to E. Hall Street’s quaint café than just adorable decor and a specific type of tea. The business may appear tiny, but it actually extends internationally. While there is only one other Maté Factor Café in the U.S. (Manitou Springs, Colorado), they have an affiliated restaurant, The Yellow Deli, throughout the nation. And like Maté Factor, they take pride in the tea they serve.
South American partnerships allow the shops to receive the freshest tea leaves. A plantation in the subtropical Paraná Pine forest was specifically purchased for two reasons. First, the plot is surrounded by natural forests, guaranteeing that herbicides would not impact the trees. Secondly, the conditions here also yield nitrogen-rich topsoil that the yerba maté plants need. This soil enables the crops to produce leaves perfectly balanced in bitterness and a strong leafy flavor that is essential for the best maté taste.
A community of roughly sixty people manages and processes these yerba mate crops in Brazil. One Maté Factor employee, Yinyah, got the opportunity to see the plantation in person and lend a hand to the laborious processing.
“They take machetes and cut down the branches. Then they strip the leaves off and bundle it into ‘mate balls’.”
This is no easy feat. Yerba mate trees tend to grow very tall, sometimes up to 45 feet high, in order to reach the sunlight that other trees may block. For this reason, the Brazilian workers continuously prune the crops so that they will spread into bushes rather than tall trees. Harvesting every season also helps keep the trees manageable bushes.
“The bagged leaves are put into big semi-trucks to take to a processing plant where they immediately open the bags and spread the leaves. If they don’t do this, the leaves would start to decompose and lose their flavor. Finally, they are put through a machine that quickly fires the leaves to burn the waxy layer off,” Yinyah continued.
Since the yerba mate trees are from the Holly plant family, they too have the waxy coating on leaves that the holiday plant is known for. Only three of the 550 species in this family are actually used for maté tea.
“The firing machine also separates the powder bits. We mix some this powder with tiny stick fragments to give a smoother flavor. If we didn’t do this, the powder would be too strong,” Yinyah comments.
Besides how much work is needed to produce the tea, there have been challenges the Savannah café has faced.
According to Hashaí, a young male worker, Maté Factor Café was initially going to be a full-fledged restaurant similar to The Yellow Deli. However, based on Savannah’s strict business zones, the owners were not allowed to produce goods and sell them under one roof. Ironically, this zone ends just across the street where Kroger can easily sell their bakery items.
“We had to get someone to come in and advise us how we could still make this [café] happen. They suggested that if we put the kitchen in a building next door, then we could get around this law,” Hashaí laughed.
Behind the counter is what appears to be a hole in the wall. This hole is actually a copper pipe that connects the workers behind the counter to the kitchen which is housed in a completely different building. The employees simply attach a heavy metal clip to the order slip and throw it to the cooks and bakers patiently waiting on the other side.
While the strange legal issues and the construction that demanded laborers taught in ancient trades postponed the shop’s opening for nine months, these weren’t the only issues. Once they did open, Maté Factor Café faced a challenge they weren’t expecting, indifference.
This business could not run without the people behind the counter. Bakers wake up as early as 4 a.m. to bake everything fresh and cooks, 5 a.m. While workers live in a building right next door, the early morning wake-ups and long hours aren’t easy. But the employees enjoy making others happy and so they willingly commit to staying open longer than any other coffee shop. Sadly, some locals choose not to visit the establishment out of ignorance.
As Sours reflects, “It’s my understanding some people have chosen not to visit Maté Factor because of perceptions and judgments they have of the 12 Tribes religious group that the employees happen to be a part of. I have only found the employees to be polite individuals who are always happy to help others.”
What this 12 Tribes religion entails, not many could tell you. The employees seem reluctant to open up to customers about their beliefs, and rightfully so. Nowhere else seems to have customers prying into the private lives of the ones that serve them food. Do you ask the young man at Panera if he is Jewish? The waitress at the diner if she is Catholic? Most likely not. So you can’t help but empathize with the workers that their different beliefs somehow turn customers away from the quality food and drinks they produce.
However, the staff at Maté Factor has made it so that even the stubborn locals can still enjoy this healthy tea. Teabags made be purchased online in addition to in the store for home brews. For me, the tea tastes better straight from Maté Factor’s fancy french press. My favorite is the Fresh Green Latté. The Mexican vanilla extract and agave add a sweetness to combat the maté’s typical bitterness. Frothed milk gives the drink a true latté texture, but without the heaviness that its coffee cousin carries.
You can learn more about the actual plant and harvesting from Maté Factor’s informative website. Check it out to find out more about this unique tea plant and business.