The flair q&A

Lauren Mercer Parker

The grit and grace of this small business owner is almost beyond comprehension. Her small tea & wine space in Montpelier, Vermont barely survived the recent massive flooding there. It's her care of her café, her staff and her neighbors - who lost everything - that gives Lauren sainthood status. We already knew this, as she is truly one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Tell me about your business or specialty.

I'm co-owner of the North Branch Café, a community gathering space in Montpelier, VT. My brilliant daughter and artist Becky, along with my beloved colleague Donia Prince and I opened it 10 years ago on April 15, 2013. In a coffee and craft beer town (and state), we decided to open a Tea and Wine Café! Our focus was to serve healthy, organic food in smaller servings to make it more affordable and with, of course, outstanding tea and wine options.

How did it get started?

A great deal of our business model revolved around information and education to get the word out about our new offerings in our small Capitol City. We were met with a great deal of skepticism about our ability to survive without coffee, but we held strong to the importance of giving priority to the tea. We experimented with Sushi Night, Lunch & Learn, Tea & Wine Classes, Book Clubs, Tea Passports, Live Music/Open Mic Night, to name a few. As we were approaching our seven year anniversary we were feeling the comfort of making it as a place to watch and visit. Then in 2020 our state was closed down for Covid. We survived the stress and strain of nearly three years of the pandemic. We quickly identified the new world and mastered the art of pivoting to the needs of our community. We changed our food offerings to include more take out options, including fresh spring rolls and sushi. We implemented online ordering of bulk tea to ship or available for curbside pickup. We offered interactive zoom classes where we paired our foods with various wine options that people could enjoy from the comfort of their homes. We also offered lunch delivery to our colleagues in downtown businesses, since most everyone was working alone to keep their businesses alive.

The biggest shift was the realization that the coffee shops in town all closed at 2pm and the customers were looking for coffee all afternoon. We figured out that cold brew did not produce the strong smell of coffee that overpowered the smell of each individual tea. We started producing five gallons of 18 hour cold brew concentrate coffee which had the added benefit of low acidity and apparently was delicious coffee.

We have become a beloved meeting place for our community. We offer over 120 types of high quality loose leaf tea and continue to offer the cold brew coffee. We merged with another local business to provide an expanded menu, specialty olive oil and vinegar retail sales and a greatly increased wine inventory. Every day we are thankful that our community opened their minds to our cozy space and alternative selections. As the smallest Capitol City in the country, we have one of the largest offerings of Japanese Green Teas and Yunnan Puer Dark Teas. We have introduced tea as the viable and medically beneficial beverage that it is. Our customers are loyal and kind to refer us to neighbors who still have not stopped in and we are always growing.

How did you get to where you are now?

I left a 30+ year career in the healthcare industry in 2012 to open my dream job of a tea shop. I started in the Dental field as a dental assistant, moving into PR and the marketing of an industry that has a challenge of perception. I graduated into Medical and Dental computer system sales and support. The most recent work and where ‘the dream’ started was 20 years as co-owner of MBA Healthgroup in Burlington, VT. We were a business of nearly 100 employees with medical clients all over the country. We provided Billing Services, Practice Management Consulting, and Electronic Health Record Consulting and Implementation Services. I was primarily focused on the role of successful billing in a medical practice starting with assessment, setting of protocols and staff training and management. Much of my expertise was in understanding the wide array of insurance companies and their unique policies.

On our many road trips, my business partner and I would fantasize about what we would do when we “retired” from this high intensity work in the field of Healthcare Management. On one of these road trips, our discussion revolved around a tea shop I had visited in London in 1999 that looked like the dream job. It was so peaceful with very low stress and seemed the idyllic role for me. That became my goal. Fast-forward to many years later, the North Branch Café​ was born!

Mother nature recently dealt your city a big blow - tell me about what happened and how you’re coping.

On this past July 10, we were about to initiate our Matcha Mornings campaign the following day. We received word around 11am from our local business association, that the heavy rain we were experiencing was about to become a serious flooding problem. Everything in basements would be at risk and all important items on our first floors should be raised three feet from the floor. We had two people working and we called in four more to help evacuate our basement of all of our paper products, frozen and fresh food, the food storage area, our office space and two small chest freezers and our ice machine. We could not move our full sized freezers or refrigerators because they were too large to fit up our stairs. We also expected that our back up furniture and equipment would be fine in any water that would make it into our basement. That was the first example of having outstanding and dedicated staff who kicked into gear for the cause.

We had never imagined such a massive storm, we were naïve about what would survive a Level 3 contamination (oil, gas and sewage) where water and mud stood still in our spaces for 25 hours. When we were allowed back into our space on Tuesday at 4pm, we were relieved to see that our small steps up and the 4’ rise above the sidewalk had saved us from the absolute devastation that nearly every other business in our direct downtown had experienced. Not a drop of water had made it onto our main café floor. I have had a love/hate relationship with our front three steps for the past 10 years…the building was built before ADA guidelines and our stairs are tall and deep and steep… with no good solution for access. These steps saved us from devastation and became my favorite feature of our space.

Walking through what looked like a hoarders house of boxes piled high on every surface, and after the supreme joy of seeing our cozy space unharmed, we made our way to the basement door. When we saw an item that lived in the far back corner of our basement on the top step, we had a clue about what had happened down there. We could see two of our freezers floating on their sides at the foot of the stairs, wedged near a wall. There was still about two feet of water at the base of the stairs and the smell was absolutely shocking. There was no power and it was dangerous to head down.

We left with a sense of dread of tomorrow… would it rain more tonight, would the water from the back parking lot make its way into the café, how would we ever move all the remains of the basement out? A sleepless night of worry led to a series of days where the shock of what actually happened to our entire business community produced an anxiety that I have never known. As the rain bomb continued to periodically rear its ugly head, we all began to experience PTSD of the beating sound of sheets of rain.

All of this sadness and despair was countered by the mass of volunteers who appeared at all of our doorsteps offering help. Our business organization, Montpelier Alive, had worked with our City to create a hub of volunteers (from 800-2000 per day for three weeks), had gathered donations of shovels, shop vacs, anti-microbial sprays, buckets, PPE, sheets of plastic, bottled water, towels cut into two foot squares, and so much more… if you needed something, they had it or they found it. For weeks, we emptied basements with inches of muck and water, removed mud soaked and slimy furniture and all the little things that we thought were safe on high shelves. We power washed and vacuumed, aired out the space, hoped to avoid mold, dried with heat and fans, washed whatever metal and glass items that we could salvage and documented all that we had lost.

As you walked the streets, the 10’ high piles that lined every inch of the sidewalk displayed the broken possessions of our business friends… we could see the familiar pieces from each restaurant and store, all of their investments lost in a single storm. As the days passed and we learned the severity of the storm, nearly 130 business spaces were gutted to the studs and floor boards. Every space a skeleton of its former self.

I suffered from survivors’ guilt and dreaded our first of the next seven Monday morning meetings where all business owners gathered, just like during Covid over zoom. We all gathered and hugged and cried and tried to have a moment of meditation to gather our thoughts. We are Montpelier Strong and yet we felt vulnerable and broken.

When I admitted my survivors’ guilt I was overwhelmed by the response that our café gave other businesses hope. At that moment, I knew that we had a job to perform in this crisis… serve our fellow businesses and give them a place to call normal. My sister gave me a large gift certificate at the café to use for our fellow businesses and the volunteers when they came in for whatever food we had left and for drinks, my brother gave me a check to cover our payroll when there was no money coming in, our customers bought gift cards to give us cash to operate and continue to clean our basement to allow us to have our operations continue in a safe and clean environment. We moved as many boxes as we could from our main café and filled our back room and front window with stacks of boxes. We uncovered four tables so that a few people could sit down. We now have eight tables and our complete front window L shaped bar available with seating for 26… a little crowded but still cozy! After seven weeks, there are now six cafés on our main streets that have opened for business, while our larger restaurants are still recovering and restoring. We have five stores that are open or partially open.

We have plans for street and sidewalk cleaning and the reopening of Montpelier this Fall. There are still a lot of questions around how we will ever afford this work, where will funding come from, where will we find the contractors to do the work, which businesses will we ultimately lose? The trauma of the event is growing into the trauma of the future…when could this happen again, how can we prevent this magnitude of loss in the future, how can businesses afford to reopen, how can people feel safe living in the downtown area?

The biggest discovery for all of us is the steadfast support of our wonderful community. The volunteers, the financial support, the emotional support. All of the feet on the street reminding us of the reasons that we opened our businesses, that we live here. It is a magical place with truly amazing human beings. I include in that category the incredible employees who came in through the mud, washed the floor constantly as everyone tracked in mud and dust from the streets and showed up even when there were no customers…that makes a long day! I am proud to be here and will do everything that I possibly can to help my fellow business owners get back up and open. We are a tiny business, but we have a big heart.

What surprises you in your work, now or in the past?

I have always chosen to work in industries that have a significant service component…dealing with people on many levels. What pleasantly surprises me quite regularly is the goodness that I experience. We live in a time of conflict and confrontation our news is constantly pointing out how things are not working. When I leave my house and walk into the world directly around me, I find cooperation, collaboration, support, kindness, generosity and joy. In our darkest times during the pandemic and now during this unimaginable destruction of our city, the people who we serve are with us. They give us hope and resolve.

Any other interests or pursuits (big or small)?

At my vintage age of 66, I am looking to pass my lovely shop to a person or people who see its value in our community. My goal is to pursue my hobby and my passion of tea. I hope to continue into my much latter years being the Tea Lady of Montpelier…teaching classes, introducing new experiences and giving people joy. I will work at finding ways to incorporate tea into my retirement!

What drives you crazy?

The world around our bubble seems so dysfunctional. In a crisis, we see our best traits…why can’t the world see how cooperation makes more sense? I wish I could do something to change our political divide and I hope with all of my heart that our younger generations have the energy and insight to get past where we are now, and to create consensus and collaboration to give us more pride in our nation.

Who inspires you? (it can be anybody you know, or don’t know)

I get my inspiration from my family – my husband and two wonderful daughters, my sister and my three brothers, the memory of my parents and grandparents who gave me the core beliefs that I rely upon today - and every day. I feel fortunate to have them all as my base - it's what holds me up and gives me strength to continue and to try new things.

You’re a trailblazer - what are some career highlights to date?

I am most proud that I raised two daughters while running a multi-million dollar women owned business. I provided an example of the strength and determination of a woman in business. I worried that they may have missed out on some mothering along the way and am happy that at 33 and 35, they assure me that it was all good. When it was time, I moved to a business that seemed like it would be a stress reduced path to retirement. As you can see, it has not quite been that. But I am proud that after 10 years, I am still working to be sure it has a future.

Words of wisdom or thoughts?

I was given a memento by my first business partner, Sandy Bechtel, it's a brass strip which has lived on my computer screen for over 20 years. It's a reminder to remain strong, to give everything my all and have faith in my convictions: "Never, Never, Never Quit" - Winston Churchill


Lauren Parker is a business leader and entrepreneur who lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband Wes, a computer business owner. She has two grown daughters who are pursuing their futures with wisdom and discretion. She has two wonderful dogs, Olive and Aspen, who give comfort and unconditional love. She loves camping and traveling and looks forward to reading a lot of books in the retirement years ahead. She also started a B&B in the 200+ year old farmhouse she shares with her husband...and they are looking forward to having many guests and special events in this space in the future - with a focus on serving the very best tea, naturally. | facebook & instagram:



Below is a powerful photo of Lauren embracing a former employee, in the early stages of the historic VT flooding. Photo courtesy John Lazenby.

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