Aunt Sue’s Tea Room: Service and Simplicity Spell Success

MARION, Ind.

After 36 years working in credit unions, Sue Wagaman opened Aunt Sue’s Tea Room in Marion Indiana six years ago. “We’re here to pamper our customers. Every person is special, and we treat them that way,” says Wagaman.

Part of the pampering includes a beautiful, unhurried setting in a 1906 house converted into a tea room, complete with original wood work, fireplace, sunroom seating, and a gift shop. A single-family home that had been divided into a two-family and then restored by Wagaman’s contractor husband Randy, the tea room seats about 50, and is set primarily in four-top tables. Although the kitchen is only about 300 square feet, patrons use about 2800 square feet for the tea room and gift shop.

Along with the Wagamans, three part-time staff operate the business, and finding staff has been a challenge at times. Although Randy had relatives in the area, Sue and Randy had relocated from California, and Sue had to build up her local contacts. She found that some of her best employees started as customers first, and that word of mouth has been her best recruitment tool. Because she prides herself in excellent service, staff must have an upbeat, high-hospitality attitude.

Aunt Sue's Tea RoomSue loves to run the business rather than spend time in the kitchen, so one of her staff is a cook. Some items are brought in, such as soup, but the scones, lemon curd, Devonshire cream, sandwiches and small desserts are made in-house. Used to high-quality produce in California,Sue said that there are times when finding the same quality produce in Indiana can be a challenge, particularly since she tries to keep prices down.

Simple menu

The menu is simple: Queen’s Tea ($10.95), which includes tea scones, fresh fruit, Devonshire cream and lemon curd, finger sandwiches, sweets, soup or salad; Lite Tea ($8.95), which does not include soup or salad; Cream Tea ($4.95), and Sandwich Tea ($8.95), which was added at the suggestion of her husband to appeal, and consists of tea, sandwich and soup or salad. A la carte items include sandwiches ($3.95), soup or salad ($2.50-3.75) scones ($2.25), pot of tea ($2.95) coffee or hot chocolate ($1.50). Customers can choose from 34 teas, and have them hot or iced.

Aunt Sue's Tea Room
Randy and Sue Wagaman

Sue manages to upsell most of her customers to the Queen’s Tea by offering “to go” boxes for any food they can’t finish, and this pushes her average ticket in the $10 range. Daily traffic for her Wednesday-Saturday hours is 20-25 customers per day. Although she initially wanted to focus only on the food and beverage, she’s found that offering a selection of gifts and antiques makes up about 20 percent of her business.

Working with the community has been a boon to her business. The tea room has been host to events such as a preschool graduation tea, a “princess tea” for the local arts school’s Princess Camp, and Girl Scout functions. In addition, area hotels have shop information for their guests, and the shop attracted the interest of the War of 1812 reenactors who visit town each year. Like most other Victorian-style tea rooms, Sue will also host special events such as showers, holiday parties, and club meetings by special arrangement. January and February are the slowest months, since many of her regular customers head to Florida for the winter, and summer is the busier time.

Aunt Sue's Tea RoomEquipment is also kept simple: two Kenmore ranges, a Bunn hot water dispenser, an upright freezer, and a 90 second cycle high-temperature dishwasher keep the kitchen going. Having a speedy dishwasher reduces tableware needs, she said.

Although she has loved running her tea room, she’s looking forward to her second retirement, and has put the business up for sale. Fast food has its place in the world, she said, but so does the tea room.