"I'm a New Yorker and I've lived here since I was a little, little, little boy," Waris Ahluwalia sighs over a cup of tea—his company's own blend—in an office building in SoHo on a recent afternoon. "And I get tired of people saying, 'New York's great, but the quality of life is terrible,' and it's sort of like, why don't we do something to improve that?"
There is a list of things any New Yorker can probably put together in under five minutes to improve the city these days, and none of the action items would involve opening a tea shop. But that's why Ahluwalia's roundabout way of thinking has landed him where he is today. Originally from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the multi-hyphenate creative (or "storyteller" as he calls himself) has had an eclectic life jam-packed with one enviable adventure after another: landing a Gap campaign alongside Cyndi Lauper and Tony Bennett; appearing in Wes Anderson and Spike Lee movies; procuring a retail space in the Gritti Palace.
But, Ahluwalia explains, about five years ago, he was starting to get a little burnt out. Or as he summarizes it: "I felt a philosophical disconnect in my life."
Selling $60,000 rare pieces of jewelry ("and that was the market value of those earrings") just wasn't cutting it for him anymore—at least not on a certain cognitive level. So Ahluwalia pulled his designs from stores (Bergdorf Goodman, Barney's, and Harrods all carried the jewelry). "Most people go about doing the thing they do everyday and they don't question it," he says sagely. "I felt like my time was done and I had to find something that spoke to a larger audience."
It didn't take him long: Ahluwalia revisited a project he had worked on in 2010, a ten-day pop-up tea shop he had done on The Highline, for which he had even found master craftsmen from India in the process.
"I hadn't intended to keep it going, but we already had the answer right there," he says. "So I started sourcing teas again."
Now, his specialized tea blends (seven in total, including "Love Conquers All" and "Sweet Clarity") can be found in select locations like the Marlton Hotel and Chateau Marmont. But it's House of Waris, Ahluwalia's simple but soothing 130-square-foot teashop that opened in November, that really introduced the brand to a wider audience. On the same Chelsea property as The Orchard Townhouse, the new farm-to-table restaurant from The Fat Radish Group, Ahluwalia calls the petite space, originally built in 1830, "an oasis" and his "gift to a city that has given me so much."
"You can come get a tea; you can come get a Kombucha on tap; you can come get your matcha, your golden milk," Ahluwalia says of the environment he hopes House of Waris will cultivate. "Or on the weekends, you can come meet with an herbalist who can make a custom blend that you can take home with you. There is nowhere on this island where you can do that." But admittedly, it's not entirely altruistic, as he laughs: "I'm creating a product to address my own need and my own stress.”