Entering Calabash Tea & Tonic (1847 7th St., N.W.) is like a hug for your soul. Your body gets one as well, likely from the shop’s larger-than-life owner, Dr. Sunyatta Amen. A fifth-generation herbalist, Amen is a medical doctor and happens to identify as a witch. It’s not as spooky as it seems.
“How can we heal you today?” she asks me, and every customer who walks in the door.
Already, the space itself is curative: overstuffed couches in bright patterns, a brass hamsa door knocker from her Sephardic Syrian grandparents’ house, a wood print celebrating the 2016 Women’s March (for sale, $600). The aroma rich, the solidarity solid, the water heaters humming: the therapy aspect is strong and sound.
Amen invites over Daniel Gao, one of the shop’s healer-baristas. Though he grew up in Silver Spring, his parents are from Tanzania, and he spent much of his youth there. Gao has been working in the shop for two years, wholeheartedly embracing the Calabash concept.
“I come from a conservative family, so it was difficult for me to come out,” he says. And given Tanzania’s history of antipathy toward the LGBT community, he’s still not out to relatives there. In D.C., however, Gao isn’t shy about who he is. He uses his passion for music, advocacy and prior classes in nursing to lift spirits and voices.
At the shop, Gao is more than a tea flipper. He relishes having a female mentor and working at a female-run shop, where empowerment flows as strong as the tea.
After coming out as gay, Gao realized he had another identity: as a “brujo,” or witch.
“I put a little bit of both love and magic into what I do,” he says. On top of each cup, he writes an affirmation, almost like a spell.
“In African spirituality,” he says, “there were gatekeepers between worlds. I see myself as having a similar role, I can channel feminine energy and transformation.”
At Calabash, Gao feels at home and part of a community and can come out confidently both as gay and as a brujo. “I can live my best life,” he says.
Halfway through our conversation, Amen notes I need a pick-me-up. I’d already tore through the vegan BLT (spinach, tomato and coconut cured, dried, spiced in-house), but she had more. Gao flew over with grandma’s recipe spiced chai: an ethereal elixir of organic Assam black tea, cardamom, proprietary spice mix and non-dairy milk.
Amen’s father was an ethnobotanist, running a small juice bar that she saw as a forerunner to her own business. Calabash is something of a modern apothecary, both trendy and homey.
“It’s designed to feel like the living room of your well-traveled aunt who tells stories of past meals and past lovers, stories that are naughty enough to intrigue and to teach lessons,” she says.
Her goal at Calabash is twofold: to create community and to heal.
Back in the dark times before 2015, when same-sex marriage was legalized across the country, Calabash played host to same-sex weddings. Washington was the farthest south that marriage was legal, so Amen’s friends and family from the South took advantage of the cozy space for same-sex ceremonies, including her sister.
Amen breaks up the interview to wish a customer well as she leaves. “Bye, beautiful,” she says. Outside of parties, the shop also hosts herbal learning classes, activist workshops and more.
As for the curative elements, Amen, whose ancestral tree is as knotty as it comes (she’s part Native American, Middle Eastern, Irish and Caribbean), explains that magic and medicine are indistinguishable.
The shop boasts more than 50 original- and family-recipe proprietary blends of tea (all organic and fair trade). But when customers explain what ails them, her staff can create something special. To Amen, this transformation, from herb to solution, is magic. This may explain the bubbling cauldron of kombucha on tap.
She also focuses on plant-based dishes to pair with the teas.
“It’s actually the vegetables and herbs that make meat taste good to people, so we figured we would show our customers how to cut out the middleman or middle-animal,” she says.
The short vegan menu includes the BLT sandwich, pies and pastries, a Mexican-corn porridge and Jamaican patties that pack a serious kick.
“I’m unapologetic about who I am, and I want to create a place of empowerment,” Amen says. “It’s time for witches to come out of the broom closet.”