manassas journal messenger 02/07/01


Getting ahead of the daily grind: Two African-American business

owners talk about tea and coffee





Some like it black, some like it with cream. But African-American business

owners Karl Chen and Kenneth Whiting have one thing figured out – everyone

likes tea or coffee.

Chen is the owner and founder of I Like it Black, a coffee, tea and

espresso bar at 5832 Mapledale Plaza, Dale City, and Whiting is the owner

and founder of the Victorian Tea Room at 9413 Battle St., Manassas.

Both work a hectic schedule that includes holding down another full-time

job – Chen practices corporate law with a telecommunications firm in Reston,

and Whiting is the supervisor of a receiving unit for the Department of

Corrections in Fairfax.

So how did they decide to get into the hot beverage business?

Whiting’s wife, Tonya, was the driving force behind the tearoom. A habitual

reader of the classified ads, she picked up the paper and saw they had a

tea place down in Fredericksburg.

The couple decided to open their own tearoom. They searched for a place

on their days off and started to accumulate furniture. Then one day, Tonya

was out walking in Old Town when she saw a “going out of business”

sign on the door of 9413 Battle St.

The tearoom opened for business last August and was drawing in the customers

even before it officially opened.

“What really made me open my eyes was, we were half-way finished

and some people from Tennessee – five or six people – knocked

on the door. They wanted to see what a tearoom looked like,” said Whiting.

“It’s a new thing,” he said.

The Whitings chose the more than 60 types of teas they serve by asking

people they knew what they liked. “Then you throw in about five or

six kinds you don’t know about,” said Whiting.

Whiting, a native of Stafford County, is eligible to retire from the

criminal justice system after a 25-year career on Feb. 1. But he says he

has been so busy with his two jobs he has not had time to turn in his retirement


Tonya also works full-time at a dialysis unit at Tyson’s Corner, and

between them they have six children and one foster child; Sherry, 21; Kenny

Jr., 24; Kaynnette, 18; Philip, 17; Korey, 15; Justin, 9; and “the

little one that runs the family,” Nathaniel, 3.

Although serving tea is a far cry from criminal justice, Whiting says

it’s the small things that make it work. He tells of a lady who came in

with a little girl who was too young to drink tea and had to have soda instead.

“I took the soda and put it in the tea pot – you would think

I had given them a million dollars,” he said.

Whiting said some people do not expect to see an African-American managing

a tearoom. “They’ll walk in, they’ll walk past me and ask someone else,

‘Where’s the manager?'” he said.

But Whiting does not let that bother him: “I have always been the

individual that will go out and experience the things you ‘can’t’ do. I

was always the type that wanted to know why,” he said.

He quotes Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ

who strengthens me.”


Chen, a native of the Bronx, New York, moved to Dale City from Baltimore

seven years ago. He liked his new community but found that one thing was

missing – coffee.

“I think – as everyone gets – you always have this little bug that

says, ‘I want to own my own business,'” he said.

Chen found a great location within a mile of where he lived, drew up

his own business plan and opened “I Like it Black” in May 1999.

“The term ‘I Like it Black’ is interesting because people are unsure

what it is,” said Chen.

He says it’s a catchy name and logo that describes the way coffee connoisseurs

like to drink their coffee – black.

Some people also see it as a reflection of his ethnicity: “If people

want to reach to that, they’re welcome to do that,” he said.

He said the community has been welcoming: “I don’t have the stigma

of being an African American business owner – I’m a business owner,”

he said.

The store is designed to be relaxing, with lots of jazz, rust and mocha

walls and a cherry wood espresso bar. Paintings by local artists hang on

the walls and are offered for sale.

The store has its own line of coffees from Africa, Indonesia and Central

America. Coffee from Ethiopia is one of the store’s best-sellers. Coffee

was founded in Ethiopia – a little-known fact that Chen plans to emphasize

in a newsletter in honor of African-American History Month.

When the store first opened, Chen’s wife Jill – mother of the couple’s

two children Joal, 6, and Keith, 3 – helped out in the back office. Chen

came in at 5:30 a.m. to open up before leaving for his Reston job.

Things are different now: He has hired an “able and capable manager”

and is taking the store to the next level – expansion.

Short term goals include new events at the store, an espresso cart at

the Dale City Farmers Market and a new store. Chen hopes to eventually create

a regional – and possibly national – chain.

“But you’ve got to start with baby steps before you start running

the marathon,” he said. “I know what it takes to do it.”

Chen and Whiting also know what it takes to keep their customers happy:

coffee, tea and a little bit of love.

In honor of St. Valentine, “I Like it Black” is serving special

drinks – Love Potion No. 9, Smoochy Woochy, Red Hot Love and Nuts About

Love, while Lovers Leap tea tops the bill at the “Victorian Tea Room.”

Whether you like it black or white, hot or iced, you probably have to

have it. Now you know who’s got it, go out and get it.

· The Victorian Tea Room is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m.

to 5 p.m. Call (703) 393-8327 for more information or to make a reservation.

· I Like it Black is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday,

7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call (703) 583-1818

for more information.

· Contact Lucy Chumbley at [email protected]



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