Inside Ruyi Asian Market and Present Tea on Commercial Street in Emporia, a small table, set up to brew and serve tea, can be found at the front of the store. This table hosts friends or new acquaintances that are bonding over different types of tea.
“I love this table. I love sitting here drinking tea with people,” said Matthew Gesner, owner of Ruyi. “Just being able to find a community space where we can just share openly with each other and get to know each other and not function like a store.”
Ruyi is an Asian market run by a local couple, Matthew Gesner and Jenny Zhang, both Emporia State alumni. Gesner and Zhang have owned Ruyi since 2018 when they took over. Gesner was taking hybrid classes at ESU while living in Lawrence, so he brought Zhang with him one day to see if they could move here.
While visiting, they befriended the owners of Ruyi that, at the time, was a restaurant and market. The couple didn’t move to Emporia from Lawrence, but back to China. However, years later they did end up officially moving into Emporia. Ruyi was now just a market and the same owners told Zhang that they were closing that week. Zhang told them she would take over.
“So we just basically picked up the store immediately upon our return to Emporia,” Gesner said. “It was fate. So it fell on us then, and she's (Zhang) been trying to upgrade it, work with different distributors to improve it and make it better. Now we also do tea.”
When they originally took Ruyi over, it was mostly a Chinese market. As the years passed and the COVID-19 outbreak happened, they decided to take a look at their demographic. They asked themselves who they could cater to, and now have a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese items for sale.
The couple have been together for 10 years now after meeting in China when Gesner was there teaching. After college he worked in business in Dallas, when the economy collapsed, the business lost everything, so he decided to do something different and teach in China. He intended for it to only be a few months, but it turned into years. After that he moved back to Lawrence with Zhang, then back to China, and finally settled down in Emporia running Ruyi.
“I still teach,” Gesner said. “I am at the high school, actually. I am here sometimes in the afternoon, but most of the time my wife runs the store. This is what she does, this is her passion, this is our passion.”
Not only did Gesner meet his wife in China, he was exposed to “real tea.”
“Our real passion here is the tea stuff,” Gesner said. “Growing up in Kansas, I had never had tea. I mean I had sun tea or like sweetened southern style tea, I hadn’t had real tea until I went to China.”
It all started when a man in China invited Gesner into his tiny tea shop near Gesner’s apartment and it “blew his mind.”
When the couple moved to Lawrence after coming back from China the first time, Gesner immediately knew that tea was missing from his life.
“(I) never anticipated having a tea shop, but ever since I was introduced to tea, it's a part of my life,” Gesner said. “We are so passionate about it. It's something that’s sort of a natural growth from our background.”
They sell boba teas, coffee teas, loose leaf tea, blends and single source teas from single farms they work with. Gesner assumes they sell about 50 different types of tea. They even have a place where customers can sit at a table and try free samples of tea.
He said Zhang loves the presence of others as well and will sit at the table for hours with customers just talking and drinking tea.
Congwen Wang, getting his masters in mathematics and science, is from the southern part of China and came to ESU to further his education.
Wang said that he was attending ESU when Ruyi was a part of the China Dragon when they were both called Ruyi.
“Most of the time I go to Ruyi market right now is for soy sauce, or sometimes I buy the rice there (or) more grocery sometimes,” Wang said. “I like the fresh frozen dumplings there or the frozen food sometimes I want to buy. Mostly because I am Asian and I like Asian food.”
He also talks about the ice cream that “tastes great,” the milk tea and he also said he likes to go just to talk to Zhang because he knows her and they are friends.
His favorite part of going is his friendship with Zhang and the convenience of having the food he likes locally instead of having to order online. Wang said the food is a very fair price and recommends the dumplings and ice cream to newcomers.
Ruyi is located at 1019 Commercial St. downtown Emporia. They are open Monday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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