As the morning customers pour in like coffee, Peter Zotis stands behind the copper counter of Loose Leaf explaining the health benefits of herbal tea.
He’s a tall man of hyperbolic hand gestures and grand, wide-open-mouth guffaws.
He’s saying that if you want to improve the looks of your skin, try sipping some calendula, which is more popularly known as the bright orange-yellow marigolds you see in gardens.
If you want to revitalize your system, have a cup of the blend he calls Dittany of Crete, which, he says, has been used since the days of Hippocrates to aid digestion and treat other ailments.
And if you want to calm your nerves and clear your head, he implores you to drink some chamomile.
Peter, the owner of the tea-herbal supplement shop, says he’s living proof that these traditional holistic remedies work.
Not too long ago, he was so ill that he couldn’t even get out of bed, and here he is, the picture of health, pouring cup after cup.
“I had never been sick a day in my life,” he says. “It was an autoimmune disease. It hit me like a brick.”
Peter was born in northern Greece, in the city of Kastoria, which is in a valley surrounded by limestone mountains.
His parents brought the family to New York City for a better life when Peter was 8. After moving around for a while, they settled in Astoria when Peter was 13.
Peter always had his eye on business. After he graduated from The City College of New York and earned an MBA from Baruch College, he became a banker while simultaneously running a series of businesses catering to the construction industry.
When he became ill a couple of years ago, he sold his businesses.
“I tried a million different things, including steroids, and I got sicker,” he says.
He points to the scars on his face.
“I had breakouts all over my skin,” he says. “And I got shingles three times in nine months. There was fungi in my liver.”
In the hopes of finding something that would make him better, he went back home to Kastoria, where he tried herbal remedies.
“I felt better immediately,” he says. “It took nearly two years to get well, and I’m still not perfect.”
So grateful was Peter that when his long-time tenant, The Jumping Bulldog pet store, closed, he opened Loose Leaf, which sells not only special blends of herbal teas but also vegan baked goods, honey and superfoods like aronia berry and sea buckthorn.
He bought some land and opened a packing and processing plant in Greece, where a professor of herbology creates Loose Leaf’s aromatic tea blends.
“My goal is to introduce these products to the American public,” Peter says. “There’s no magic pill – this is about a lifestyle change.”
While Peter is at the counter, his head of design and marketing, Jessica Yousif, is sitting in the back of the shop with her laptop working social media.
Jessica is from Detroit, Michigan. She spent her teenage years in Charlotte, North Carolina.
After she earned a degree in film at SCAD Savannah and spent a year at home, she headed to Astoria, intent upon pursuing a career in freelance photography.
“I always wanted to come to New York City because it’s where all the action is,” she says.
She soon discovered that photography alone would not pay the rent, so she started doing marketing and project management for businesses.
Jessica, who is 26, and Peter, who is 51, had bumped into each other several times when they went to the corner shop to get their morning coffee.
On one particular day, it just so happened that they were seated next to each other.
Jessica was working on a project proposal for a prospective client, and Peter offered to help her restructure it.
“I got the job because of him,” she says.
He started telling her about his plans to open Loose Leaf.
She didn’t know anything about tea.
“My family emigrated from Iraq, but they all drink Lipton tea,” she says. “I had never even tried loose-leaf tea.”
But she did know a good idea when she heard one.
Loose Leaf, which Peter calls an “experience shop,” will celebrate its first anniversary in June.
It is, he says, a work in progress.
He’s expanding the product line – he recently added a skin-care massage oil made of herbs and superfoods – and ramping up the online store.
“I just want to make people feel better,” he says.
He takes another order. When he hands the paper cup to the customer, he breaks into a grin that reaches from his chin to his forehead.
God, it’s good to feel good again!
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling