Iowa City Stories

February 18, 2010

Sakshi Handa Mears: Owner of a Blossoming Business

Filed under: Local Profiles — nawaar @ 3:27 pm

SAKSHI HANDA MEARS: Owner of a Blossoming Business
by Nawaar Farooq


Sakshi Handa Mears

Sweet smelling rose smoke slowly exits her mouth. She sits comfortably on a white couch with black floral print in the main room while people come in through the front door to greet her. French music plays in the background while she smiles and drinks red wine out of a petite porcelain cup.

Welcome to the Red Poppy Tea and Hookah Parlour, owned by Sakshi Handa Mears and her husband, Mayes. Delightful and witty, Sakshi has created a cozy and charming atmosphere for her customers. The Red Poppy opened in 2005 and brings in a good amount of traffic. So much, that it has already gone through two expansions. Sakshi is a very charismatic character who loves her friends and family, her husband and her business, which is a large part of her life.


Sakshi was born in New Delhi, but lived in Princeton, New Jersey growing up. She started her junior high career in Iowa City and has lived there ever since the sixth grade, aside from living in Maui for eight months after she and her husband were married. She says that living in Maui was an incredible experience, but she and her husband “still love the simplicity of the Midwest.”

The eldest of three children, Sakshi was the only daughter. She has a 23-year-old brother who lives in Chicago and runs his own computer related business. She also has a 6-year-old brother who lives in Coralville and currently is in kindergarten.

Sakshi graduated from Iowa City West High in 2000 and then attended the University of Iowa, where she graduated a year early in 2003. She majored in English and minored in Spanish. She originally was a biological sciences/pre-med student, but that changed shortly into her college career. Art, literature, dance, and acting classes soon consumed her life. Even now, she enjoys reading children’s fantasy novels and hopes to write one someday.

In fact, in college she wanted to write a great story. She realized that wasn’t a realistic aspiration unless she stepped outside of the world of academia and lived life. After graduating, she did live life and still keeps writing. She worked for small local businesses and decided to try her hand at that. Sakshi says she has new aspirations every day.

“I try to achieve anything I set my mind to,” says Mears.


Shortly after graduating college, she set her mind to catching her dream man after meeting him. Mayes caught her attention when she stopped at his glass blowing shop. He picked up on the attraction, but was afraid to take her out at first because he felt that he might have been a bit too old for her.

“I thought she was way too young for me, so I didn’t really pursue it, but she kept on pursuing me. But after the first time we officially had a date and met, from then on we knew—we both knew that we would be together,” says Mayes.

Although hesitant at first, it didn’t stop him from sweeping her off her feet. Mayes married Sakshi in February of 2006 after dating for nearly two years.

One of the most memorable moments in her life is the first time she and her husband kissed. She excitedly talks about how lovely it was. Other moments include enjoying the sunset in Maui, dinner in Paris with her husband while a live band played her favorite French song, and swimming with hammerheads in the Galapagos.


So, what about the Red Poppy? How did Iowa City acquire such a lovely cultural addition to its plethora of businesses? It turns out Sakshi always wanted to start a tea house, and it occurred to her that hookah would be the perfect complement to the tea.

Mya hookahs for sale at the Red Poppy

“I had never smoked a hookah before, but just had this idea. In Seattle, my husband and I stopped for a falafel and they offered hookahs as well. We smoked rose and after one puff I knew this was a great idea with the tea. We opened three months later.”

She and Mayes didn’t have much trouble finding a name for their burgeoning business.

“We went through animals, trees, and ended up with flowers.  I said poppy, then red poppy. It was simple and catchy, so it stuck.  I invented the term tea & hookah parlour because of the decor.  I wanted the space(s) in the business to be little private parlours.  Parlour is the European spelling, instead of parlor, which I thought seemed more appropriate to the cultural fusion concept,” says Sakshi.

Sakshi does make a point to clarify the difference between a hookah bar and hookah parlour. She says that a hookah bar is the more common term for the average hookah establishment and the word “bar” implies that alcohol is being served. She thought the word “lounge” was a bit too modern for her taste, so she coined the phrase tea & hookah parlour from the commonly used term “tea parlour,” and just added the “hookah” to it.

Listen to why Sakshi thinks her hookah parlour is different from others.


As a South Asian and female business owner, Sakshi does feel that there are some pros and cons, which are listed below.


  • She gets to be her own boss and have her own hours
  • There is a greater sense of flexibility with what she wants to do
  • She is able to decorate a beautiful space
  • She constantly meets new people and makes new friends


  • The government doesn’t take care of small business owners in America, especially in terms of health insurance and over taxation
  • As an Indian, being a small business owner is considered a risky option when compared to being a doctor or an engineer


Welcome to the Red Poppy!

Since its opening, the Red Poppy has expanded twice. The first expansion was in early 2007, and the second occurred in mid-2008. Her husband, who has been glass blowing for almost ten years, displays his work at the Red Poppy. He used to own his own shop, but he closed it when they moved to Maui in 2006. His work is well received by the clientele.

“We definitely needed the extra space, we were turning away customers on busy nights.  It has been a great success!”

So what can people expect when they visit the Red Poppy? Along with the Mya hookahs filled with a large selection of Romman shisha flavors, Sakshi says,

“They can expect to have some amazing tea and have a relaxed evening with friends around a hookah.  We like to seat people and then leave them to have a good time.  It’s a cultural and social experience unlike any other, and we like to be the ones to provide that here in Iowa City.”

If you are interested in visiting or would like to know more about the Red Poppy, please feel free to browse its Web site or Facebook page. You can find hours of operation and see pictures from the various events that are held there, including the popular “Arabian Nights” and “Unlimited Hookah Night.”


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