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At Rare Tea Cellar, Rodrick Markus Pursues Only The Very Best

By Justin Breen | August 21, 2013 8:13am
 Ravenswood resident Rodrick Markus owns of Rare Tea Seller in Lakeview, which specializes in rare ingredients, teas and truffles.
Rodrick Markus
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LAKEVIEW — Rodrick Markus' life has been the pursuit of the rare and unusual.

As a 3-year-old, the current Ravenswood resident searched for the most hard-to-find cheeses when shopping on the North Shore with his father, Norman.

As a teenager, his passions were collecting baseball cards and knives.

"His room was kind of like a little antique shop," said Lucas Greenberger, his best friend since their days at Highland Park High School. "And he would just always figure out a way to profit from something's collectability, sort of like a junior trading post guy."

That "trading post" has become Markus' Rare Tea Cellar, the Lakeview business that specializes in rare teas and gourmet ingredients he founded seven years ago.

 Rare Tea Cellar, owned by Ravenswood resident Rodrick Markus, ships truffles every day of the year.
Rare Tea Cellar, owned by Ravenswood resident Rodrick Markus, ships truffles every day of the year.
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Rodrick Markus

His 4,000-square-foot warehouse stores some of the world's most expensive food and drink products, from a $20,000, four-pound brick of 1949 vintage Pu-Erh tea, to a $1,500 piece of Jamon Iberico de Bellota ham. He once possessed a 1.7-pound truffle originally from Australia, which he said he sold for $3,000 to Moto in Fulton Market.

"I really just had a focus on the best of the best," said Markus, 42, whose other interests have included collecting ash trays, cigars, lighters and wine. "It took me long enough to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, but it took me here."

Markus said he has seven employees and 1,000 clients, including about 200 in Chicago. He likes to say his "supplies" find their way to 90 percent of the high-end restaurants in the city.

"He's just as passionate about what he does as some of the chefs he sells to," said Curtis Duffy, chef/partner of Grace restaurant. "You get fascinated by his knowledge. That's always been his M.O.: finding the best ingredients and getting them out to the chefs."

Markus is "continuously on the hunt for something new." His latest craze is locating the Matsutake mushroom, which will begin to arrive in a few weeks. The fungi, craved in Japan and by five-star restaurants, retail for $70-$120 a pound. Markus wants the absolute top grade, which have a seamless cap, much like the ones he photographed in a "Smurf Village" setting.

How Markus brings the Matsutakes to Chicago is a good representation of his business plan. He developed relationships with foragers who have "grown up their whole lives around the mushrooms" in remote, high-elevation Oregon locations. And then he stresses he only desires the most elite grade before they're shipped to him.

"I go out of my way to meet as many people in the industry as possible," said Markus, who describes his communications skills as "Schmoozapalooza" and visits countless locations around the globe for goods.

Norman Markus also said his son isn't afraid to take a chance.

"He's taken on some new products, like mushrooms and truffles, that at first I thought didn't make much sense, but it blossomed into something," he said.

Markus' parents — Norman is a retired plastic and reconstructive surgeon who graduated from Sullivan High School when he was 16; his mother, Donalee, is a cognitive psychologist who designed an intelligence-building program for NASA's Critical Thinking Skills Project — have been married 42 years. His sister, Lindsey, is an award-winning attorney downtown, and he has two twin brothers, Gavin, a hedge-fund analyst living in Manhattan, and Brent, who runs a rare tree farm in Oregon.

Markus, who is single, said his siblings were far more focused on their education than him. After 18 unproductive months at the University of Arizona, he transferred to the University of Vermont, where he graduated with degrees in psychology and hypnotherapy with a minor in studio art.

"He sort of found himself in Vermont. He needed to find what he wanted to do, and it took him a little longer," said Norman, who helps Markus organize shelves and go over financial goals at Rare Tea Cellar one or two times a week. "But he's very happy now."

Greenberger, a Lakeview resident who owns a small painting company, said he's had the good fortune of being Markus' friend.

"I've been a high-end Guinea pig for many years. It's awesome," he said.

Markus also has enjoyed the benefits of having access to unique items. He'll bring his truffles in a bag to restaurants, shaving them onto pasta dishes. Norman said Markus will combine the ingredients into delicious sandwiches.

And, most of all, Markus said he's been pleased to build a business from scratch through hard work and dedication.

"It's fun to be around a real positive thing, always striving for something amazing," he said.