Many local fans of Tchai-Ovna are well aware of the struggles that the beloved Otago Lane teashop has been facing over the past few years. There has been a vicious legal battle waging right next to the University since 2012, and many students have joined in on the war-cry to save Otago Lane from a fate of concrete, high-rises and 100 “luxury” flats. Here at qmunicate, we aim to give you a recap of how shops like Tchai-Ovna have been finding ways to survive in this classic case of corporate moguls vs. the little guys.
In 2000, two ordinary students attending the University of Glasgow, Martin Fell and Ken Shand, had an idea for a teashop they would later call Tchai-Ovna. The friends dreamed of creating a cool hangout spot close to the University. They scrounged together funds from their student loans to rent the tiny property, barely beating a motorcycle club for the space. At the time, they had very little experience with business operation. However, they jumped in with both feet, and the two quickly learned that running a teashop wasn’t a walk in the park. Together with friends they operated the shop voluntarily for the entire first year.
Through the power of word-of-mouth, this small, home-grown teashop has since figured out how to provide some of the best services for their patrons and make a real name for themselves. Tchai-Ovna offers exotic teas from numerous areas around the world, hosts musical, poetic, and dramatic acts regularly and were featured as part of an album cover for Glaswegian music act Belle and Sebastian on their 2003 LP Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The shop has become a defining establishment for the area, and has been featured in various magazines that feature places to visit around the city. Having expanded beyond their original tea roots, they are also a favorite hookah and vegan-friendly destination for many locals. The shop is now currently run by a select fifteen people who share the visions of the founder and their love for the teashop.
Did you think that was the happy ending to your Cinderella story? Jump to 2011 when Hugh Scott, a millionaire developer and ex-Greenock Morton Football Club owner, purchased the entire plot of land that incorporates Otago Lane. Back in 2003, fans had fervently petitioned against his ownership and even led a protest march 3000 supporters strong. With complete disregard for the culture that Otago represents, Scott proposed the building of 100 luxury flats over the entire development. This sparked a campaign that was spearheaded by Tchai-Ovna and locals to prevent Otago Lane from being built over. The controversy that erupted from the dispute resulted in a large Facebook campaign and tens-of thousands of pounds in donations. The matter reached the Glasgow City Council in 2012. Unfortunately, the Council decided in a 9-6 vote in favor of Scott’s development. However, Tchai-Ovna stumbled upon a miracle that allowed them to delay to the construction.
It was discovered that near the shop’s veranda was a small habitat of otters. Animal rights activists made it so that Scott had to re-plan his development so as to not eradicate the natural territory known as the Kelvin Meadow Wildlife Corridor. At this point, Scott realized that the tea shop would continue to provide some prominent opposition to his plans. Instead of negotiating with local shop owners about a way to build his development without disturbing too much of the historical parts of Otago, he chose to solely target the tea shop’s operations. When the employees of Tchai-Ovna were performing maintenance on their veranda, Scott’s legal team found a way to craft a case stating they were intentionally building new property to obstruct development plans. The matter was initially proved false in court. However, this exposed one flaw in the legal system that seems to benefit the wealthier classes.
Hugh Scott possesses the ability to pour all the money he needs into appeals whereas Tchai-Ovna runs on the small revenue that comes with being a tea shop. They have had to ask for donations from supporters to help construct their own legal team. No matter how many times the court could rule in their favor, Scott would drive them into the ground on appeal expenses. It reached a point where an out-of-court decision had to be made.
Owner Martin Fell issued a statement detailing the final decision and how the shop will move forward:
“[Tchai-Ovna is] entitled to use the veranda without limitation until the end of April. From thereon-in we cannot use it which means we will not be able to access our tea shop properly.”
The developer has also agreed to not file for expenses if Tchai-Ovna moves from the veranda as soon as possible. As this is the way to access the shop, this ruling has made the situation very difficult from a business standpoint. Nevertheless, the owners are resilient and currently in negotiations to rent a space on Renfrew Street near the Art School.
One thing is certain: the support of the community has been a crucial asset in this time of distress. Large amounts of public pressure has allowed for a delay in development thus far. Fell testifies to this:
“Without the crowd funding support and indeed the power of the community, Tchai-Ovna and Otago Lane would not have come this far. The crowd funding has enabled us to employ one of Scotland’s top and coolest Advocate QC’s Iain Mitchell, who worked miracles in brokering the agreement in the best interests of the teashop and the community.”
Bottom line: Hugh Scott emerges victorious because of his heavy wallet and legal leverage, Tchai-Ovna loses the fight (but still survives), and Otago Lane lives to see another day in Glasgow. If you are a Tchai-Ovna lover, pick yourself up, mend your broken heart, make a visit and plan to sip your favorite tea at a different location after this April.
Amidst the turmoil, Fell is calm and looking towards the future of Tchai-Ovna: “Whatever happens, our heart is in Otago Lane, and wherever we are located we will continue to support residents and businesses of the Otago Lane community in their fight to protect it. We are eternally grateful for the support and sympathies of those that love the lane and the culture.”
Tchai Ovna will be hosting a fundraising event for Otago Lane on Saturday 14th March. Details can be found here.