Still Working: Matchaful

Hannah Habes started working for Big Food right out of college, representing — and eating — many of the most popular brands: Pepsi, Chewy granola bars, Gatorade. But by her late 20s she was wrestling with all sorts of health issues and after visits to a half dozen doctors with no diagnosis in hand, she decided to make a radical change in her diet.

She embarked on a self-described “health journey,” trying to eat cleaner and simpler. “I wanted to feel better, and I wanted to consume things that made me feel better.” And in the midst of it, her husband came home from a trip to Japan with a little packet of matcha powder as a souvenir. She was hooked after the first brew. And the more she learned about it, the more she was convinced she was on to something.

“Matcha is a green tea, but it’s so much more than that,” she says. “It has been part of Japan’s history for centuries — it was used in battle by Samurai warriors, monks would drink it to help them concentrate during long hours of mediation. It gives you a calm, relaxed energy — a better high in a way than coffee, smoother and more relaxing.”

She couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was talking about it at parties, on street corners with friends — trying to get everyone she knew to try it. “I became this little matcha missionary.” At that point there was virtually no distribution of matcha in the US, so she rented a test kitchen and started importing. Everything snowballed from there.

By 2013, she was flying to Japan to meet with farmers and look at the supply side. The idea came together quickly from there. “I had a light bulb moment,” said Habes, now 33. She also saw first hand why matcha is different than other teas. The health benefits, she said, come from actually consuming the whole leaf. The leaves are grown under a certain process that allows for maximum chlorophyll and amino acid production. They are then steamed, dried and ground into a fine powder. The powder is then brewed into the tea, rather than just soaked or strained. You get more antioxidants and a little more caffeine.

Matchaful started as a pop-up at Smorgasborg in 2017, and Habes went door to door to coffee shops to convince them to carry it. Once she had matcha brewing in 30 outlets, she decided it was time for her own brick and mortar. First came a pop-up in Dumbo, then a second in Soho, and finally she opened a permanent space on Canal at the bottom of Wooster just over a year ago. And the reason this is for us story now, in these times, is the pandemic forced her — like so many other small businesses — to pivot.

In mid-March there was less store traffic, but the customers who did come by were grabbing brews off the cooler shelf for the first time ever. So Habes ordered glass bottles and expanded the line to include almost everything they have on the menu in the store. She now has a line of DIY matcha for home.

“We wanted to evolve and meet our customers where they wanted to be,” said Habes. “We rebuilt the website, ordered jars, did some shelf-life testing. We wanted to offer something fresh but still be able enjoy it at home.”

You can now order freshly bottled beverages for local delivery or pickup. The staff bottles them on the spot at the bar and are ready to get cold and either served over ice or reheated. Shelf life depends on the type of milk (there is house-made almond and hemp seed milk) and ranges from four to seven days.

She loves her location on Canal (“our consumer might not be walking Canal Street, but they are just north or just south, and it allowed us to open a bigger storefront”) and there is a new store in the Hudson Yards Whole Foods and they are launching another cafe in Nolita this fall. Thirty East Coast stores stock their matcha powder. And they spent part of the pandemic crafting an activated matcha granola that can be shipped nationwide. The conversion scheme seems to be working.

“Matcha takes a little more labor,” Habes says. It has to be whisked or frothed, and water temperature is key. (She has step-by-step instructions on her website.) “But it’s worth it.”

Matchaful Cafe
359 Canal (between West Broadway and Church)


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