Before she was a lawyer or a city councilor or a mayoral candidate, before she was a wife or mother, Michelle Wu was the owner of a literary-themed café in Chicago.
Her brief stint as a restaurateur provided a distraction from a tumultuous time in her family ― as well as a challenging real-world lesson in business that would later inform her political work.
Her shop’s teas had cheeky names inspired by literary characters — The Green Gatsby, Hermione’s Potion, Dorian (Earl) Gray. Even the name of the shop, the Loose Leaf Tea Loft, had a playful double meaning, signifying both the steeped teas and the stationery products for sale there.
Notebooks and journals lined the walls, along with books of fiction, stacked in crates that Wu and her sisters had coaxed from the owners of wine shops.
“I remember Michelle driving us around in the family minivan to different liquor stores and having to go in and beg them, ‘Can I please just have one wine crate? Could I have two, is that possible?’” recalled her sister Sherelle Wu. The furniture was haphazardly acquired on Craigslist, creating a vibe she described as “a mix and match funky retro bar.”
It was 2008, and just a few months earlier, Wu had been a 23-year-old on top of her game in Boston. A recent Harvard graduate living in the North End, she had landed a job at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. Her boyfriend, Yale film studies graduate Conor Pewarski, was about to embark on an internship in Hollywood.
Opening a tea shop in Chicago was not part of Wu’s plan. Instead, it was the “retirement” fantasy of Wu’s mother, who had stayed home to raise her four children and imagined opening a community space as an empty nester. Yu-Min Wu — then 51 and separated from her husband, Han Wu — still had two daughters at home when her tidy suburban life began falling apart.
She would later be diagnosed with late-onset schizophrenia, but at first, no one knew what was happening.
Wu’s father, a chemical engineer, had landed an opportunity with Swatch Watch and was working in Switzerland when her mother began to have trouble managing. Wu and her brother, Elliott, were already off at college. Her mother, Sherelle, and youngest sister, Victoria, briefly moved to Switzerland to join their father.
“It was an attempt to sort of stabilize the family by having us all together,” said Sherelle Wu.
But it didn’t prove helpful. “We all realized that moving to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language is not a stabilizing move,” Sherelle Wu said. So Yu-Min and the girls returned to Barrington, Ill., where her symptoms began to worsen. Months later, Sherelle Wu made a panicked call to Boston: Their mother had started hearing things that other people couldn’t hear.
“Growing up, she always told us if you see someone in trouble, don’t just turn the other way,” Michelle Wu recalled. “She started hearing people crying out for help. In the middle of the night, she was going out, trying to help,” Wu said.
Wu rushed back to Illinois, to help her mother and help care for her sisters, then 11 and 17. Together they began trying to get their mother diagnosed and then treated — a tough process with a patient who was both stubborn and suffering from paranoia. It became clear this wouldn’t be a quick visit.
With her savings from her consulting gig — and her boyfriend, who gave up that internship — Wu left behind her new grownup life in Boston. She moved back to her childhood home, where she was vaulted into preternatural maturity.
“Almost overnight,” she said, “I became a mom to two girls.”
Between the emergency room dashes with her mother and the school trips with her sisters — the “blur of day-to-day survival,” as she put it — the tea shop of her mother’s dreams emerged as a fanciful notion. Wu had imagined opening a business that her mother would take over when she recovered. But her mother, she now realized, would never be well enough for that.
Rather than a long-term retirement project for her mother, the Loose Leaf Tea Loft became a pleasant family diversion from the chaotic tension of the moment.
“The tea shop in some ways was the little spot of joy for all of us,” Wu said. “We could be talking about the decisions we needed to make, how we would create space that was truly welcoming to everyone.”
Wu rented the space, a former antique shop near, but not in, a newly hip area of the city, and set to work on the fledgling family business. Wu, with her sisters, boyfriend, and sometimes her mother, chose colors, painted the walls, and tasted dozens of teas to choose the selection for the shop. They ranked the teas by aroma, taste, and other factors, and named their selections, recalled Sherelle Wu. Their younger sister named a tea for herself, “Victoria’s Garden.” Sherelle favored “Puck’s Pleasure,” a reference to the fairy’s love potion in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“It was really fun. It was sort of like this side project that we could all work on as a way to distract ourselves,” said Sherelle Wu.
“Michelle came up with a timeline, a budget, a whole business plan, and delegated age-appropriate tasks to Tori and to me,” said Sherelle Wu, who was interested in psychology at the time. “I was looking into what color should we paint the walls, and what color plates should we buy. What makes a coffee shop or a restaurant feel cozy?”
It wasn’t easy. Though their projected business timeline had seemed straightforward, inspections and permits were repeatedly set back. “It just became delay after delay after delay,” Wu said, remembering how she “had to go beg our local alderman for assistance.”
Plans to open in the summer were pushed back to fall. But after finally opening, they fell into a groove, with Sherelle Wu often working the cash register. Loose Leaf would host monthly poetry readings, dubbed the “Poetry Love-In,” as well as open mic nights and entrepreneurship classes.
“I loved it. Once we actually got it open, it was beautiful,” Wu said. “It really felt like creating a space that was welcoming people into our home. We were able to find and become part of the local arts scene.”
Wu, who took food safety training before opening the restaurant, would make dumplings and “whatever cookies I felt like making that day,” she said. Though she didn’t perform at the poetry slams, she would play the café keyboard at quiet moments. (“That’s what I would do for a little refuge from the storm swelling,” she said.)
The gathering storm was her mom’s illness. When it became clear that Yu-Min Wu would not be able to handle the tea loft on her own, Wu began planning its sale and her return to Boston. After the many legal and regulatory hurdles she’d experienced, she was drawn to the study of law, and applied to Harvard Law School.
And so they came to Boston. Wu became Tori’s legal guardian in 2010, a few months before her father filed for divorce from her mother. (He’s now remarried in Florida, where he works as director of technology for a battery company.)
Sherelle Wu, now 30 and an employment attorney in Boston, lives in Jamaica Plain with her husband and Tori. Wu and Pewarski married in 2011 and now have two sons of their own; Wu’s mother lives the lower unit of the duplex they bought in Roslindale.
Wu brought back with her the real-world business lessons she learned by opening the tea loft. She was able to channel her frustrations with Chicago’s inspection process into a revamp of Boston’s, while working as a law fellow in the “urban mechanics” program of former mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration. There, she created a streamlined, online tool kit for restaurant and small business owners to follow, in addition to creating a city approval process for food trucks to operate in Boston. As a city councilor, Wu authored the “Acoustic on Main” ordinance that lets restaurants and other small businesses offer live music, poetry, improv, or other performances, without having to obtain an entertainment license.
In city government, she tries to remember how it felt on the opposite side of the regulatory counter during her brief, seven-month stint operating a business.
“It’s figuring out how to serve your community in a different way,” she said. “Entrepreneurs are resourceful, resilient, and make such a difference in anchoring our neighborhoods.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.