Five years since a poor economy sucked dry Ashland's Heartsong Chai, Elizabeth Bretko couldn't keep a new business from brewing.
"You got to get back up on the horse," says Bretko, 42. "It really is the phoenix rising from the ashes."
The metaphor even made Bretko's menu at Uber Herbal, the teahouse and specialty market she opened in mid-April. Appropriately, The Phoenix Rising is a "flight," or sampling, of Bretko's signature beverages: Wife's Life Elixir, Mate Fire, Habanero Honey Brew and Fire Cider with the addition of Middle Rogue Farm Kommunity Kombucha. The drink that started it all, Heartsong Chai, is prepared in several ways, including from a coconut shell.
"If you want some, you can come get it," says Bretko of the brew she bottled for wholesale accounts from San Francisco to Seattle before skyrocketing costs for shipping in late 2008 precipitated the closure of her Chai Hut in south Ashland.
A remnant of Bretko's brewery, a 5-year-old bottle of pepper brew that she unearthed late last year provided no small dose of encouragement. "Still delicious," the beverage confirmed what Bretko already suspected: She missed brewing teas and herbal elixirs. But the wisdom Bretko found in failure and, subsequently, motherhood infused her next incarnation as an entrepreneur.
No longer out to "hydrate the planet" or compete with Monster Energy drinks, Bretko has broadened her business at Uber Herbal, a name that "embraces everything" she does. Her 16-acre, family-run farm in Grants Pass specializes in all the botanicals and medicinal plants used in Uber Herbal beverage blends. The fields, orchard and surplus from other farmers also yield "seasonal, small-batch wonders" that include pestos, compotes, vinegars, mustards and other condiments.
Strong sales over the past couple of years on Etsy, an online marketplace, and at the Saturday session of Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market in Ashland, justified Bretko's move into a retail space with a commercial kitchen. When a friend encouraged her to initiate a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, Bretko was skeptical and still sensitive about Chai Hut's closure. But she decided to take the "flying leap off a cliff" in very public fashion, and watched support trickle in up to the project deadline.
"You really have to be OK with being successful," she says.
The $13,000 generated through Kickstarter allowed Bretko to install Uber Herbal in a shopping plaza storefront in downtown Grants Pass. Her specialty foods share shelf space with locally produced Pennington Farms preserves, pOpCakes rice cakes, TonTon's cookies, raw honey and olive oil. The refrigerator is stocked with Oak Leaf Creamery cheeses and produce from Sweet Water Farm in Hugo.
"This place turns into a retail opportunity for all the regional food people," says Bretko.
Located just around the corner from the Saturday Grants Pass Growers' Market, Uber Herbal is a weekday outlet for fresh, organic produce, says Bretko. Cauliflower, broccoli, onions, kale and lots of berries have been available at the store. Uber Herbal also is a drop site for Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative's community-supported agriculture shares and herd shares from Pi Creamery near Talent.
"We're doing all of these things in 600 square feet," says Bretko, adding that she envisions Uber Herbal as a "gallery for farmers and foodies."
To put local foods on patrons' plates, Bretko looked no further than toast. The simple snack taps into the trendiness of toast bars in San Francisco and other major cities, Bretko says, but it also showcases local bakers, farmers and other artisan producers. If customers like what they taste, they can purchase the ingredients from Uber Herbal's inventory.
"We're using the toast as a vehicle for the farm-direct foods," says Bretko.
Four versions, priced from $2.75 to $4.25, span the spectrums of sweet and savory, along with daily specials that recently paired pecan-cilantro pesto and avocado. Single toppings, from nut butter to goat cheese, cost 25 cents to $1. Bretko's Spice of Life seasoning blends can be sprinkled for sampling on any toast.
"It's comfort food, and it kind of goes with the tea," says Bretko, explaining that she serves up a caffeine boost for moms and a wholesome nosh for kids in about 15 minutes.
"The toast kind of works any time of day,"
Expanding Uber Herbal's hours is Bretko's next goal. The store is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 103 S.W. Fourth St., Grants Pass.
Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at firstname.lastname@example.org.