Chris’ Tea Cottage, Bigfork, Mont.

BIGFORK, Mont.

Log cabins, corndogs and huckleberry martinis are not the things of great tea houses.

Or are they?

At Chris’ Tea Cottage in Bigfork, Mont., customers take “tea time” in many ways. Unconventional options keep the bottom line healthy.

“Sixty percent of our sales are not ‘tea house’ related,” Chris’ Tea Cottage co-owner Carl Easton said. “You can’t stay in business just serving little, cute sandwiches.”

Easton runs the shop with his wife, Chris, offspring of a tea-loving mother who took her four daughters to “every tea house in England,” Easton said.

When the Eastons left Lake Tahoe, Calif., to settle near Chris’ family in Montana, Chris, formerly a teacher and flight attendant, decided to pursue a proper tea house.

“But this is the hard country.

Opened in 2005 in a restored, circa 1921 log cabin, Chris’ Tea Cottage was different from the start. The look was hardly Victorian dormers.It’s the last of the West,” Easton said. “There’s nothing for 50 miles around us.”

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The Eastons adapted by creating fancy tea rooms inside and a garden outside. Landscaping sprouted patio seating, which is unusual for a Montana tea room.

Locals loved the “logs and lace” theme, formal tea service and special Christmas and Mother’s Day teas, but growing profits required more open-minded approach. The Eastons listened to customers and created a consumer advisory board.

“You’ve got your champions in your seats…The people that are your champions, they see your business different than you see it,” Easton said. “They recognize opportunities.”

One board member noticed that Chris’ served few men, but she saw lots of guys purchasing corndogs at local fairs. Intrigued, the Eastons expanded their menu.

“I’ve sold a hell of a lot of corndogs,” Easton said, adding that men lingering in the tea house to eat give their wives more time to shop Chris’ tea-related retail market.

Huckleberries seemed another unlikely seller. So many places around Chris’ stocked Bigfork’s local huckleberries and related products that the Eastons figured they couldn’t compete. Still, they couldn’t deny tourists’ insatiable appetites for all things huckleberry.

Chris' Tea Cottage

Patio at Chris’ Tea Cottage

With a license to sell alcoholic beverages, Chris’ Tea Cottage added huckleberry martinis, huckleberry margaritas and huckleberry daiquiris, as well as tea-based cocktails, all of which patrons like to sip on the patio.

“One of our biggest selling items is alcohol, and it also gets the men in,” Easton said.

Customers prompted other profitable ideas. Questions about the tea house’s antique furnishings spurred the Eastons to expand their retail mix into antiques. Recipe requests spawned the well-selling “Chris’ Tea Cottage Cookbook.” Knowing that local rules prohibit dogs inside restaurants, the Eastons welcomed pets on Chris’ lawn. Homemade doggie treats are on the way.

Rather than engage in traditional advertising, Easton, an electrical engineer by profession, conducts off-site tea education sessions and writes a monthly tea column for a local women’s magazine.

Afternoon tea still accounts for 40 percent of sales, and coming up are bridal shower teas and Tea For Two at area golf courses. While the men tee off, their wives will sip tea.

“We change our products every year, we change our menus constantly,” Easton said.
People always want something new.”

Liz Biro is a freelance writer and author of The Daily Dish restaurant news and reviews. Write her at lizbiro@hotmail.com or visit her Facebook page www.facebook.com/LizBiroDish

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