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Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan performs an eight-hour interpretation of Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha" last month at his Highland Park tearoom.

Billy Corgan's Highland Park tearoom strives for the offbeat

by Matt McKinney
Mar 19, 2014

Matt McKinney/MEDILL

Listen to Billy Corgan talk about his teashop

Billy Corgan stood near the front of his north suburban teahouse last month, performing an eight-hour interpretation of “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse on a synthesizer.

While it’s not a scene you’d expect at your neighborhood Starbucks, “that’s the point,” the longtime Smashing Pumpkins frontman says. “The real goal was to have a performance, artistic space. The tea was just sort of to put it all together,” he said.

Corgan opened Madame ZuZu’s, 583 Roger Williams Ave. in Highland Park, in 2012. His plan was to offer a mix of high-end teas, pastries and enliven the setting with frequent performances by poets and musicians.

He was inspired by his tea-drinking days at art galleries in New York City’s Soho neighborhood in the 1990s. Corgan claims he has never had a cup of coffee even during the time he dated turbulent alternative rocker Courtney Love.

“I just thought it would be really cool to have my own space someday,” he said.

A Chicago native and Highland Park resident for about a decade, Corgan wanted to open “something different” in the upscale suburb 23 miles north of the city.

“They kind of roll up the sidewalk at 9 p.m. here, so I thought it would be cool to change that,” he said.

While the store hasn’t yet turned a profit, Cogan likes the direction things are headed.

“My experience with [music] taught me you have to find a way to be unique,” he said. “Somehow turn your smallness to advantage and turn your uniqueness into a flexibility that a bigger business can’t have.”

That meant finding the right source to supply the tea. He worked with tea “guru” Rodrick Markus, a tea wholesaler in Ravenswood who travels the world to track down unusual blends for the shop.

“It’s like finding a guy who could tell the difference between a wine that’s B-plus and a wine that’s A-plus. It’s really neat,” Corgan said.

The men were introduced on-air by Chicago radio host Matthew “Mancow” Muller several months after Corgan opened Madame ZuZu’s two years ago.

“It was just an impromptu thing, but a total ‘hit-it-off’ kind of moment,” Markus said.

Markus has ventured to locales around the globe, including China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Egypt to find the best tea leaves available. “We’re buying everything blind, according to taste first. We’re looking for something that rolls down the throat,” he said.

Although Corgan initially planned to take a hands-off management approach, he has become very involved with day-to-day operations. “It didn’t quite go the way I wanted in the beginning, so I stepped in and I’ve been really involved ever since,” he said.

That includes paying the bills, sampling teas and even performing like he did last month.

“It’s a full-time gig, but I really love doing it,” Corgan said.

Still Corgan’s high profile, Madame ZuZu’s is completing with a bunch of new teahouses across the North Shore. At least 16 tearooms have opened in the Chicago area since 2003. Argo Tea, a chain of loose-leaf tea shops, is continuing to roll out new stores backed by private equity investors.

“That was the major question. How can I compete? Obviously I can lean on my name a little bit, but how can I really compete against a corporate business that’s predicated on profit and has small stores?” Corgan said.

That’s where the art and design aesthetic comes in. Corgan modeled the interior of Madame ZuZu’s in the vein of an “avant-garde French restaurant from the 1930s.” The inside includes an original 1930s Art Deco bar, an old piano, funky light fixtures and winding black patterns on the walls.

“I really think there are people out there, who want to connect with something that has a bit of a special glow to it,” Corgan said.

The shop also plays to customers in search of high-end caffeinated beverages, which include only about 25 percent of the tea-drinking world, Corgan estimates.

“A lot of people say, ‘Where can I get the cheapest cup of tea?’ You have to learn the difference,” he said.

Madame ZuZu’s tea — some of which costs close to $6 a cup — began to take off as prices went up, Corgan said.

“[People] don’t want to just go to another place where people sit around with their laptop. It’s part of the experience. It’s part of the quality of the tea. And you start to build your business around,” he said.

The 47-year-old musician hopes to ride the wave of a fast-burgeoning tea industry. Analysts say the wholesale value of tea will double in the next few years, according to a report last year by the Tea Association of the USA.

And while he’s content now with just the Highland Park location, he sees a bright future — and an ever-changing menu of teas — for Madame ZuZu’s.

“We’re just getting started,” he said. “We’re headed in a really unique direction.”