Palm trees lined the Venice Beach boardwalk, shading the sea of tourists, street artists, and chintzy tee-shirt vendors below — just like in the movies Roman Gabriel had watched as he budged his way into the film industry out in Los Angeles.
It was 2008, and he was living the dream at age 35 that he never could’ve imagined over a decade prior when he first came out to California. Sixteen-hour days on set, taking meetings and producing music videos in between directing episodes of reality TV, with hardly any time to sleep. Roman loved every exhausting minute of it.
Not to mention, he was making more money than he ever had in his life — and more money than he would after moving back to Durham, NC, later that year.
Below the towering, draping palm fronds, Roman passed other rollerbladers, sculpted body builders, and sunburnt passersby as he glided down the boardwalk to the tune of the Talking Heads.
“I’ve got to ride this wave,” he thought to himself, looking ahead to the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel in the distance. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
Roman stumbled into the industry after changing his major from fine art to film at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. With no connections and little experience, he began teaching himself how to navigate the world of video production.
In 1992, a lucky cold call to one of the biggest production houses in California at the time — Propaganda Films — turned into an internship and then a paid job as a production assistant.
After less than a year at Propaganda, Roman became a freelance director and cinematographer, working on court TV and reality shows, short films and commercials.
It soon became all-consuming as Roman achieved what to him was an unprecedented level of success. After starting up that shiny ladder and soon being hooked on the climb, Roman began making what he considered really good money, yet he had no time to spend it.
And, several years had passed since he had last seen his loved ones back home in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina. He had uprooted himself completely out West, having traded potlucks and Sunday school mentors for video shoots and Californian spiritual gurus. Everything Roman once considered home seemed worlds away, and he finally started to feel truly homesick, after almost fifteen years.
As he was figure-eight-ing on his rollerblades along the Venice Beach boardwalk, his mind wandered to the possibility of visiting the East Coast. It was in that moment that he slipped.
As the boardwalk swept out from under him, Roman put his arm back to brace his fall. Instead of his skull, his left wrist was broken to pieces. Absolutely shattered.
He sat on the warm summer concrete, with his legs stretched out in front of him, rollerblades flopped to one side, wincing in the worst pain he had ever felt in his life.
Still, Roman thought, “This might be the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me.”
In that moment, there was no time to go to the doctor. He had a music video to shoot in Santa Monica that night. Ibuprofen and ice would have to do for the time being. The scar, the story, and the long-awaited trip back home would come later.
Fanny-pack dads follow sticky-finger kids, whose cinnamon roll crumbs leave a trail through the bustling crowd. Towards the far end of the street, just past Durham Central Park, Roman’s vibrant orange tent boasts a line of patrons eager for a taste.
It’s a Saturday morning at the Durham Farmers’ Market. A new customer approaches Roman’s stand: a young woman wearing sunglasses and workout clothes with her boyfriend in tow. She glances over the bottles filled with Roman’s sweet tea sitting on the counter, tagged with his signature “RomanzTea” logo.
“Is this just some sweet tea or something?” she asks.
“I wouldn’t put the word ‘just’ in front of it,” Roman says as he hands over a cup of sweet tea garnished with a sprig of fresh mint.
She smiles politely and takes a sip. Color returns to her cheeks as she takes off her sunglasses to get a better look at the drink in her hands. Now she can’t help holding back a true smile.
The new customer passes the cup to her boyfriend for a taste, taps her smartphone on the card reader to pay, and says a cheerful goodbye to Roman between many thanks. As the couple heads back into the Saturday morning market crowd, she grabs back the tea from her boyfriend and enjoys another sip.
Roman waves goodbye, revealing the fifteen-year-old scar on his wrist that stretches over three inches up the inside of his arm.
The Durham Farmers’ Market is a long way from the Venice Beach boardwalk, where Roman took a spill over a decade ago. But that fall took Roman on an unexpected course that led to RomanzTea.
His broken wrist left him in a full-arm cast for 11 months. Roman knew he wouldn’t be able to work the long set days managing heavy equipment like he once could. So, he moved back to North Carolina just after his accident in 2008 to live with his father for rest and recovery. A blessing in disguise, Roman’s return to the East Coast allowed him to reconnect with his loved ones and recreate the magic of his grandmother’s famous sweet tea.
Now with the help of seven employees between management, sales, and tea-brewing, Roman has expanded his small business throughout the city of Durham, with no signs of stopping.
I sit across from Roman, with a cup of that special sweet tea in front of me, in the yard of his Sweet Tea Café. Aside from the farmers’ market, Roman sets up shop at this quaint brick-and-mortar just off Mount Moriah Road. The café has a wooden porch, a trailer painted with the sunny, orange RomanzTea logo, and a yard of picnic tables perfect for gathering.
Roman’s eyes light up as he tells me his plans to experiment with new recipes in his commercial kitchen, fix up the espresso machine at the café for hot drinks during cooler months, expand the patio to make more room for comfy seating and a small concert stage, and distribute his tea to more local shops.
“I haven’t even finished painting the logo on the trailer,” Roman says. “You know, it’s all just a big art project.”
In Roman’s mind, a venture like this is never complete. Every aspect of RomanzTea has endless avenues for improvement, and he continues to chip away at that list.
Roman grew up in a big cooking household, and some of his earliest memories are around the kitchen: watching his grandmother brew sweet tea on visits to her home in Durham, standing on a stool to look over his mother’s stovetop creations, and smelling the oaky burn from his father’s grill after church.
Roman’s parents had always expected him to be a preacher. His mother Lolita went into labor with Roman on a Sunday morning at church. Their car broke down on the way to the hospital and only started up again after they stopped to pray on the side of the highway. His birth was a gift from God.
Yet, with his curious mind, Roman resisted the church’s limiting mindset that his family wanted him to fit into. Even still, Roman never felt more at home than when he acted as his grandmother Leona’s assistant in their Sunday ritual of making tea after church.
The summer before his fourth-grade year, Roman climbed up his grandmother’s black cherry tree for the first time to collect fruit, as ordered by Leona. These trees lined the backyard of Roman’s family’s townhouse, where a waist-high chain link fence protected the fruit from neighborhood kids but not hungry squirrels.
Leona stood at the base of the tree, craning her neck and squinting her eyes to point out the best bunches of fruit for her brew. Roman stretched every which way from the most dubious branches before dropping the juiciest cherries into a bucket by his grandmother’s feet.
Grandma Leona then hummed away in the kitchen, stirring together thirteen different teas for the perfect mixture. Never following a recipe, only a feeling, she chose a combination of tea from a wall of shelves in her pantry. Ten-year-old Roman looked up in wonder at Leona’s collection of tea bags and loose-leaf tea, which spanned from the top of his head to the ceiling.
Homemade fruit syrups and lots of honey sweetened Grandma’s special tea blend, and she mixed her secret combination of teas and sweeteners in a three-gallon pickle jar, leaving it on the sunny porch railing. Roman hopped down from the cherry tree branch — fingers sticky from his fruit-picking duties — landing on the dirt below with a soft thud.
The different teas streaming together like watercolors mesmerized young Roman. He watched the brew for hours, as if it was a slow-motion movie. With his notebook open and drawing pencils in hand, he illustrated every detail he could while basking alongside a giant pickle jar in the North Carolina sun.
Home-grown, sun-brewed, beautifully crafted, and of the freshest quality. Something in the warmth of the sun and grandma’s hugs seeped into the sweet tea — something beyond a recipe.
But whatever magic existed within each batch of tea could not erase the tension growing between his parents.
Roman’s youngest brother Reubin was four years old when his mother Lolita decided she wanted to go back to work and earn her own money. Roman’s father Alphonso thought it was too soon, that she should wait until Reubin started grade school. Lolita thought he was holding her back.
Though Roman’s parents never involved him in any arguments, they still talked loud enough — and often enough — for Roman to understand what was going on. He was 14 when they divorced.
Roman found solace in his art. Fine art painting became his escape, and by the end of Roman’s time in high school, he was showing his paintings in D.C. galleries.
He stayed in his hometown after graduating high school in 1990, starting an art magazine that he titled Fauves, the French word for wild beasts. Roman wanted to channel the energy of Henry Matisse and the Fauvist art movement, with its bold colors, non-naturalistic depictions, and wild, unorthodox energy.
“Ready or not, here we come” was the slogan for the magazine, plastered on posters throughout D.C.
Fauves was picked up by several local book and record stores, earning him a pretty penny at only 20 years old, yet Roman itched for more. So, he decided to leave his family and friends on the East Coast for college out West.
But not before one final goodbye with his high school friends in D.C., by way of a bittersweet dinner party. Everyone gathered around his long oak dining table: seven packed on each side, one at the far end of the table, and Roman at the head closest to the kitchen. Happy conversations were shared as waves of nostalgia and camaraderie met the mouthwatering smells of the spread Roman had created.
Charred spicy red pepper chicken, sticky rice, and Pad Thai were plated next to baked chicken with crispy prosciutto, Italian spaghetti, and scallop garlic potatoes. And to wash it all down, Roman tried his hand at making his grandmother’s classic sweet tea.
“I could see my hand melt into my memory looking at the boxes of tea at the grocery store, like when my grandmother would reach up at the ingredients in her pantry,” Roman recalls.
He mixed his rich tea blend with sugar, honey, and fruit syrups back in his kitchen. Stirring it all together while thinking of memories of his grandmother and good times with his friends, Roman felt like he was making magic. That energy, that intention, you could taste it in the homemade sun-brewed sweet tea. And at the dinner party, Roman felt for the first time he was doing something right for other people’s palates.
When Roman first returned to North Carolina in 2008 after working in California for over fifteen years, he tried his hand at recreating his grandmother’s sweet tea that he had missed so dearly. He mixed any tea that sparked even a hint of nostalgia, but every combination produced a disappointingly bitter taste.
Roman graduated from the Raleigh Bartending School that same year, despite the finger-to-neck cast from his recent injury. Holding a cocktail shaker turned out to be more manageable than toting around large, heavy camera equipment.
After passing his bartending exams, he landed a job at a local restaurant, Cuban Revolution, using his newfound skills. But when it came to recreating his grandmother’s tea, something from her treasured recipe was missing, lost in a faraway memory..
Roman had given up trying to replicate Grandma Leona’s exact tea recipe. Instead of fixating on her precise proportions of different teas, honey, syrup and spices, Roman channeled his grandmother’s feelings of love, care and creativity when she made her brew. Only then did he find that familiar taste and feeling of home.
Roman balanced a six-gallon glass jug of his tea on the roof of his 1982 cream Mercedes 240D. At the top of a parking garage, the glare of the sun reflecting off the glass made this odd sight harder to ignore. It grabbed the attention of his Cuban Revolution coworkers when Roman set up his batch for a day of sun-brewing at the start of his bartending shift.
His sweet tea was so rich — and more opaque in color — that it trapped some energy from the sun rays into the brew, when it would typically shine right through a clear glass.
Roman called it “liquid sunshine.”
Intrigued, the waiters and cooks at Cuban Revolution wanted to get their hands on a bottle. Before Roman knew it, they snagged his special sun-brewed tea out of the trunk of his car — and compensated for looting such treasure by stuffing twenties into his pockets.
Word of his sunshine in a bottle traveled fast.
This hobby had blossomed into a small business almost accidentally. After some initial hesitation, Roman accepted the invitation from a friend at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market to set up a guest stand with a few cases of his tea one weekend in 2016.
An hour into his first day at the market, Roman sold out.
Almost seven years ago, Roman launched RomanzTea as an official business. He embraced what was once a memory of his grandmother’s recipe and grew it beyond her one big pickle jar on the porch all the way to the Durham Farmers’ Market, his own Sweet Tea Café, local grocery stores, and gourmet food shops in the Triangle.
Its regional success has depended largely on word of mouth. As a routine visitor of the Durham Farmers’ Market, I first knew to head over to Roman’s stand after overhearing a lady rave to her friend about the brew.
An indie guitarist plays on the opposite sidewalk, luring families with his enchanting sound. A little boy, wearing a puffer jacket far too heavy for the mild chill, timidly toddles over to the performer’s open guitar case, as if in a trance, with a five-dollar bill from his mother’s wallet.
The cheerful vendor-shopper banter with the indie music in the background sounds like how the most comforting hugs feel. And that’s also how Roman’s sweet tea tastes. Even though it’s iced and refreshing, the spices in the tea and the depth of the flavor warm you from the inside out.
In front of the little boy’s family in line, a woman with graying hair and a red scarf talks to Roman about a party where plans to serve his tea. Her tote bag stretches down and out as she forces a fifth bottle into the unforgiving fabric. The bottles clink together as she reaches for a sample of his new minty lemonade. She heaves up the bag slipping from her shoulder and promises to come back for lemonade next week.
The unexpected magic of RomanzTea connects Roman with his customers. And the value of that interpersonal connection has allowed the small, local business to prosper.
Roman leaned on community organizations when first establishing RomanzTea as a company. Food conferences with the Durham Arts Guild and North Carolina Cooperative Extension taught him the food business basics: vendor permits, business insurance, health department and USDA regulations. He also connected with Leon Grodski Barrera and Areli Barrera Grodski, owners of the Durham coffee chain Cocoa Cinnamon, who acted as mentors, giving Roman advice on how to make this small business thing work.
We’re sitting together at the café beneath a blue porch umbrella with a windchime dancing in the distance. It’s evident that Roman has made it work. It’s evident that he is proud of it, too.
Running RomanzTea has been his full-time job for nearly eight years. A perfectionist, Roman did everything himself at first: buying ingredients, doing prep work, brewing, bottling, storing, selling, managing, distributing, running the farmers’ market stand, running and renovating the café. But that’s not where his passions lie. Roman is an artist — a filmmaker — at heart.
Only ten months ago did Roman hire additional employees. Now, with a general manager, brewer, and café baristas, he can lay off the reins a little. While others make sweet tea slushies at the café or pour the sweet tea-lemonade mix — dubbed a Tiger Woods, instead of the traditional Arnold Palmer — Roman has picked up the camera again. Between local commercials, music videos, documentaries, and feature film production design, Roman has fused his past and his present in establishing his future.
He told me, taking a good look around at the Sweet Tea Café he has built, “I’m doing it all for art’s sake.”
It’s impossible to convince an artist like Roman that his projects are complete, when he has so many visions for improvement.
“My art professors always had to tell me when to stop painting,” Roman confessed.
In his eyes, a painting can always use one more brushstroke, a recipe can always benefit from minor tweaking, a building can always go for the latest renovations. Between working on fine art paintings, his art magazine, video production, reality TV, bartending, sweet tea brewing, or growing his company, Roman continues to find room for growth as he embraces the artistic beauty inherent to the process.
Photos (from top): Roman Gabriel brandishes a bottle of his custom sweet tea; Roman’s first pop-up stand at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market; the Sweet Tea Cafe; a batch of tea takes shape with help from the sun. Photos courtesy of Roman Gabriel.