By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Shortly after graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Aquilla Stanback remembers sightseeing trips with her mother and visits to tearooms, which she found comforting.
“You can go several places and have tea,” she said. “Going to a tearoom is a different type of experience, though: I think it’s the atmosphere, the relaxation. When you go to [a tearoom, it’s] … usually quiet, whereas some restaurants may be loud.”
In a tearoom, one can enjoy a pot or cup of tea, as well as sandwiches, scones, and desserts. The concept gave birth to Stanback’s business, Lillie’s Cup Tearoom, named for her grandmother, who passed away in 2010.
“I just think about my grandmother, … and she definitely would have been a tearoom lady,” said Stanback, 44.
Stanback is a recent graduate of the Create Birmingham CO.STARTERS program, a 10-week business-training course designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with insight, relationships, and tools to turn their business ideas into action.
“That’s what probably really helped me focus,” she said. “I didn’t want to do a meal-prep [business or] traditional restaurant because [Birmingham has] a lot of great traditional restaurants or restaurants that have their own flare, but a tearoom is something that has always been on my mind.”
Stanback is just getting started in the business, so she is acquiring a feel for the market—researching the types of teas people enjoy, finding out whether tea drinkers want sweet teas or if they prefer black, green, or white teas.
Part of her learning process includes getting people to sample her products. In April, she sold tea for the first time as a pop-up shop at Square One Goods on First Avenue North, and that gave her confidence to expand.
“It’s interesting that when you become interested in something, you will find different resources that help you grow in that area,” said Stanback, who spends a lot of time attending conferences and classes on tea. “It’s a continuous learning process.”
While visiting her hometown of Chicago, Ill., during Christmas a few years ago, Stanback was invited for a tea by a friend at a place that was close to her mother’s house.
“That’s what kicked off the vision for the tearoom,” Stanback said, adding that the idea grew after she became a judge at the World Food Championship in Orange Beach, Ala., where she ranked different foods.
She always wanted to get involved with something restaurant related, so she chose what most interested her—tea. Stanback has partnered with a company that provides herbal teas and herbal-tea blends, such as her Lillie’s Blend, or “Sweet Lillie,” a robust tea blended with almond and vanilla: “I just love the way it smells,” she said of the mix.
“[Teas] smell so wonderful to me, but there is just something about the smell and then the taste of ‘Sweet Lillie,’” she said. “You can drink it with or without sugar. Either way, I was like, ‘I really like this one.’”
Lillie’s Blend is a tea Stanback believes her grandmother would have enjoyed, which is important to the budding entrepreneur who got some of her talents from her grandmother.
“All of her children cook,” said Stanback. “She has one daughter [and] three sons, and they all cook. … They grill, they bake cakes. It’s just something we all enjoy.”
Though Stanback grew up in Chicago, she was very close to her grandmother, who lived in Florence, Ala.
“I would spend summers with her,” she said. “As I became an adult, I came to Alabama for college, and she was always very supportive; always helping me, giving me advice, and encouraging me.”
As a child, Stanback wanted to be a nurse. She also wanted to attend a college far away from her hometown.
“Unlike my friends who wanted to go to college in state, I wanted to go far away,” said Stanback. “UAB felt comfortable, especially because I thought I wanted to be a nurse.”
Stanback started as a pre-nursing student, changed her major to mass communication, and graduated in 1998. She began a television career at Birmingham’s WBRC-TV Fox 6, and then moved on to an ABC affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn. Eventually, she returned to Birmingham for a position at WIAT-TV CBS 42, where she was responsible for writing news and station promotions.
Currently, in addition to owning Lillie’s Cup, Stanback is a senior manager for client services at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the central nervous system, so it primarily affects the brain and how the brain communicates with the rest of the body,” she said, adding that doctors are seeing more patients of color who are diagnosed with the illness, which varies from person to person.
“Everyone is affected differently,” said Stanback. “You won’t meet two people with MS who have the exact same symptoms, [which] can range from blindness … to numbness and paralysis.
Some MS patients have difficulty walking, she explained, but “there are some people who you’ll never know that they’re diagnosed with MS. They’ll walk into a room like anyone else, they’ll go to gym classes like anyone else, … but they may have issues with fatigue. Some people have cognitive issues, and some people have a combination of everything I mentioned.”
While she enjoys supporting MS patients, Stanback also has a passion for tea. Her goal is to sell tea full time and open a brick-and-mortar location, “where people come, sit, and have not just tea, but full tea service, with food and tea,” she said. In the meantime, she will continue setting up her tea pop-ups. Lillie’s Cup teas are $5 an ounce; a cup of tea is $3 (12-ounce hot tea or a 16-ounce cold tea).
To learn more about Lillie’s Cup, you can visit her Facebook or Instagram page by typing in the name of her business.