with warm colors, comfortable charm, and a warm cup of tea - those are the images that come to mind when visiting today’s tearooms that dot the East Coast landscape of the U.S. To many of these tearoom owners, who tend to be women, their grandmothers were the ones that inspired them to become tea entrepreneurs in their adulthoods.
Yet, these baby boomer tearoom owners didn’t just open up their teashops for afternoon tea. Instead, they’re savvy businesswomen, who diversify their businesses with homemade foods, tea seminars, retail, and other venues to develop a reputation and a customer base - all of which create a feeling of nurturance - allowing their female customers to feel completely feminine, as well as to willing to buy their tea products to recreate that same feeling at home.
For Bonnie Porro, owner of “Thyme for Tea” in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and Virginia Autry, owner of the “Strawberry Tea Room” in Starke, Florida, older women influenced their introduction to tea, but the 9/11 crises catapulted them into taking the plunge and open their tearoom doors. Porro explains, “For about 15 years, I thought about opening a tea room. September 11th is my birthday, and I was talking to my daughter on my birthday in 2001. She said to me, ‘You’re not getting any younger. When are you going to start this business?’ I promised her that by Thanksgiving, of the following year, that I would be in business. Four days before Thanksgiving , I opened my own tea room.”
Porro continues, “I did a good business from the beginning, and that business has grown steadily over the past three years and three months.” A lot of her success can be attributed to her diversification of “Thyme for Tea,” where she retails tea products, and on the days that the eatery is closed, she teaches classes entitled: “The Fine Art of Scone Baking; Creating Elegant Tea Sandwiches; and Mini Desserts and Baby Cakes.” Additionally, Porro hosts day trips to places like Newport, R.I. and publishes a newsletter that she sends to customers that sign her guest book. All of these pieces to her business, along with her business seminar, “Dream To Reality: How to Open and Operate a Successful Tearoom,” allow her to make money and accomplish her dream of operating her own tearoom.
Homemade Foods Add to the Treasure
Porro and Autry nurture their customers by baking and cooking from scratch the foods that they serve. Autry says, “I have a great regard for the health aspects of tea and the reduction of preservatives in our diets. I prepare all of our menu offerings on site. Anyone can open a can or a box and call themselves a restaurant. From scratch, with fresh foods, puts me a notch above the rest.”
Porro likes to stay on top of her baking and cooking skills. She states, “I bake two or three times a week, and freeze much of what I serve to stay on top of the demand, [as well as] keep up with the increase in business.” She makes the majority of what’s on her menu, including her own cream and lemon curd. Her most popular dish is a potato-crusted vegetable quiche. “It’s really popular. I use shredded hash brown potatoes, salt and pepper, and egg white. I place the mixture in a 9 x 13 baking dish for 15 - 20 minutes. Then, I pour the quiche mixture into the pan and bake until it’s done,” Porro says.
For her finger sandwiches, Porro uses the complete selection of Pepperidge Farm breads. Some of her finger sandwiches include a cheddar biscuit with a roast beef spread and a ham salad spread on a corn muffin. Her signature salad dressing is a cucumber dill dressing, which is a sour cream and mayonnaise base with cucumbers and dill.
Autry also cooks and bakes most of her foods from scratch. “I’ve created a lot of my recipes. I have revised some that were given to me or from books. Recipes, like lemon curd, are four ingredients, amounts and techniques will give you a multitude of results.”
Autry makes freezer jam when strawberries are in season. She cooks her own Southern clotted cream, which is her version of scone dressing. “I beat heavy whipping cream and add powdered sugar and vanilla. In the South, we like it sweet!” Her other homemade specialties include tea breads, soups, cheesecakes and cakes, and petite desserts, which include fudge, tea cookies, shortbread cookies, and bonbons.
How Retail Adds to the Profits
“There’s no way I could survive [as only a tearoom] without the retail side,” Porro states. “It’s imperative for a tea room to have a retail section to it.”
In that regard, Autry and Porro sell what they serve, as well as tea accessories, to help their women clients feel beautiful and feminine. Porro adds, “We sell to serve and serve to sell.” This two prong marketing advice is modeled by having the tea that she serves in her tea room on hand. For example, the day that I met Porro, there was a baby shower in full swing in the tea room. The hostess of the shower came out to the retail section and wanted to buy the tea that was served during the baby shower. Porro’s daughter, Maria, quickly got the bag of tea that was for sale. Porro says, “We create memories for our customers to recreate at home,” and this is demonstrated through the products that she has for sale in her tea shop.
“Bottom line -- it’s easy money. You don’t have to work at selling it. You just put it on the shelf,” says Porro.
Autry agrees on the benefits aspect of retail. She says, “I visited other tea rooms with retail, and [found that] it’s a great balance. Shoppers are local and non-locals. I have folks coming in -- via word of mouth -- from 90 miles in all directions.”
Porro and Autry don’t just sell tea. Porro sells aprons, music, cookbooks, tea cups and other tea-related inventory. The same with Autry - her shop includes teacups, teapots, cards, bears, baby, soaps, candles, flags and ornaments. Teapot purses can also be found for sale in both Autry and Porro’s gift shops.
Keeping in Touch
Keeping in touch with your customers, whether they’re regulars or not, warrants consideration. People feel part of your world when they receive quarterly newsletters or flyers updating them on the specials that are coming to your tea establishment. For example, Autry puts flyers on her counter that lists upcoming events. Some of the other marketing and advertising that she does focuses on local radio and newspapers advertising, listing upcoming events on a white board in the front of her tea room, plus mailing reminders to her customers.
On the other hand, Porro does almost no advertising. “I only buy advertising once a year.” Instead, her quarterly newsletters sent to the visitors in her guest book have provided the means to increase her business. “It’s good marketing because I’m reaching out to my customers. Eight months into the business, I had a sharp drop. I then decided to write a newsletter to the 350 guests [that signed my visitors’ book]. After the newsletters were sent, I got a spike in business. Now, I send newsletters to the 1,600 customers that are on my list every quarter. I got a tremendous spike [in business] from the newsletters.”
Porro chuckles, when she remembers her first newsletter. “I copied them at Kinkos and then mailed them out to the 350 on my list. I always include a 10% off coupon in the newsletter for upcoming events, and I write a letter to my customers.” Today, the newsletter is impressive with a buff background and a layout that includes a letter from Porro on the first page, a list of events with corresponding 10% off coupons, and specification on the classes. She also includes an order form for “Tea Thyme Treasures and Memories,” which are cookbooks that Porro is in the process of publishing.
Offering Courses During Off Hours
Autry and Porro love the tea world so much that they want to share that knowledge with other tea aficionados, and with these tea classes they offer tea entrepreneurs the opportunity to diversify their businesses. “The newsletters, cookbooks, and tea school are good marketing. All of them are an inexpensive [way to market],” Porro says.
Porro teaches three classes, as well as “Tea Time Food School,” which is for those interested in opening their own tearoom. Her three classes are called: “The Fine Art of Scone Baking,” “Creating Elegant Tea Sandwiches,” and “Mini Desserts and Baby Cakes.”
This year, the “Tea Time Food School” will be held from June 11-14. Porro and her daughter, Maria, will teach seven classes titled:
Basic Kitchen Equipment - Students will learn about commercial kitchen equipment, and the kinds that are needed for a tea room.
The Beginning: A Great Cup of Tea - Students will learn how to brew black, green, and oolong teas.
The Art of Great Scones - Students learn how to make scones, as well as receive recipes for scones.
Creating Elegant Tea Sandwiches - Students observe the making of tea sandwiches, as well as learn about garnishes and storage tips.
Mini Desserts - Students will observe the process of making mini desserts, as well as have the opportunity to make their treats.
Soups and Savories - Students will learn different recipes for appetizers.
Decorating Your Three - Tiered Server and Serving Afternoon Tea - Students will decorate their own three-tier servers and serve them to actual guests. Porro will use this opportunity to donate 100% of the proceeds to a local charity.
Autry, on the other hand, holds two to three classes every few months. She says, “I’m a very practical gal. I preach practicality.” Autry also offers evening and Saturday morning classes for her students, where there needs to be a minimum of 10 attendees per class. In her classes, she teaches tea’s history and tea facts, as well as distributes tea questions for class discussion. She says, “I find a mixture of clientele present. Most just want to know how to make tea at home.”
In addition to the tea information, Autry teaches attendees how to brew a cup of tea. For her students, she brews various types. She states, “I teach how to brew various types of teas: Black, oolong, green, white, rooibos, and herbals. I display the leaves dry and brewed. [I expect] the leaves to be handled. I encourage the use of the senses of touch, smell, taste, and vision. It’s very hands on.”
Along with the six teas that she brews for her participants, she also serves scones for a morning class and a dessert for an evening class.
Autry and Porro will attest that older women did influence their love for tea-that’s why their tearooms are decorated in warm colors, lace, and antique furniture. Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs have a remarkable talent to market their businesses by diversification through classes, newsletters, and retail sales in addition to their tea rooms-which has made them successful in their corners of the tea industry.
About the Author: Wendy Komancheck freelances from her home in Pennsylvania. She writes about small business, agriculture, and tea. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.