Darlene Alston at her tea shop, Just A Bit Eclectic,
photographed by Laura Herberg. Courtesy WDET.
The first signs that you’re in for something different when you walk into Just A Bit Eclectic are the old school dial-tuned radio and rotary phone on display. There’s a bronze cat that lives on the wall behind a sofa and there’s a lap harp. As for the doilies — they’re on the ceiling. Welcoming, whimsical and a little like a secret getaway, Darlene Alston’s tea shop is a manifestation of her dreams and favorite things to do — the culmination of a vision she’s had since she was 20 years old.
Located on West McNichols in Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood, Just A Bit Eclectic stands out for reasons other than lasting for eight years outside of Detroit’s greater downtown area. It is also home to A Place To Begin, the nonprofit organization Alston founded and operates to support youth ages 14-21 exploring their options after exiting high school and before entering into adulthood. All proceeds from Just A Bit Eclectic are poured into A Place To Begin.
“I wanted to start a tea shop that incorporated everything that I like and the things that I like to do,” Alston said. “Those things are tea, people, handcrafts and farming.”
You read that right, reader. Just A Bit Eclectic is home to a registered USDA farm, too. When you enjoy a cup of tea or eat a meal at the shop, the vegetables and tea blends like Muffin Top, Granny’s Purse or Heaven on Earth are as fresh as they can get.
Before opening her space, Alston created the life she wanted to live for herself; she uses the tea shop to empower youth to do the same. She welcomes a new cohort of 10 young people every year who engage in six months of work habit and personal development training, followed by six months of on-the-job training in their own projects.
The young people in Alston’s program try their dreams on for size first by being paired with a mentor. Mentors are recruited every year with personal and professional experiences that match the interests of the program’s youth participants.
After being paired with a mentor, youth get started with day-to-day operations in the tea shop, and later step out into the registered farm behind the shop to help grow the foods and herbs that later become meals and teas for guests—think lavender, chamomile, basil, lemon balm, peppermint, spearmint and lemongrass. Inside, youth help create the shop’s menu. Finally, they are given the opportunity to safely imagine, develop and execute their own ideas and business plans with Alston’s support.
“People tend to think that children should know what they want to do after high school, but they don’t, because they don’t even know what’s out there,” she said. “So, we try to provide them with that opportunity to explore career choices, their interests and things like that.
In practice, that looks like the teens overhauling her entire shop every time she welcomes a new group of youth into her program.
“The tea shop is never a static business; it’s a fluid business. If the children say, ‘Ms. Darlene, I want to build a t-shirt business out of here,’ they’d work to set up a business plan on how to do it, and then they’d go ahead and do it. If they say, ‘We want to have a music cafe here,’ I say, ‘Fine, you can do it.’
There haven’t been any new projects this year due to COVID-19. Alston said that she has reached out to a list of schools and group homes, but in the interest of safety, families have been hesitant to engage right now.
When things are up and running though, Alston can afford to run a constantly evolving business because she owns the tea shop and the building it’s in—free and clear.
It’s a freedom that allows her to have different goals than some other small business owners. She’s been criticized in the past for not prioritizing her monthly revenues or how many tables she turns per day over offering youth in her program influence in the shop.
“I think more children need to learn how to make and be a part of their own success where they could say, ‘this is what I’ve done,’ as opposed to stepping into somebody else’s success,” she said. “That’s not really giving them anything. That’s congratulating the person who was [already defined as] successful. For me, that’s why every time a new group of children comes in, we can start all over again. I don’t have a problem with it, for one, because I own the building. I’m not losing any money starting over.”
Besides, starting over, or growing into something better suited for the more experienced, more knowledgeable version of one’s self is exactly what happens when people learn to pay attention to who they are and receive the freedom to make their own choices in their youth.
Alston was provided that freedom as she grew from “a great group of people.” Their belief in her ability to make good choices gave her the confidence to build upon and redefine success through several businesses and careers, including selling t-shirts on the beach in San Diego, California for five years. Alston defines success not in financial terms, but as “being able to do what I want to do until I decide not to.”
Through Just A Bit Eclectic and A Place To Begin, Alston cultivates an environment that nurtures young people as they discover their own capabilities, limitations and desires—judgement-free and with all necessary support—to define and design success that’s all their own.
For now, the tea shop is closed to guests as it prepares for reopening in mid-May. At that time, guests will be welcome to visit the outdoor spaces only, both in front of the shop and on the farm side where “there have always been tables and chairs for learning and tasting.” Alston doesn’t plan to reopen her indoor space until COVID-19 infection rates are consistently decreasing.
Just A Bit Eclectic
19015 W. McNichols
Detroit, MI 48219