Teahouse Charms Melbourne, Australia

Afternoon tea at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair or the opulent Ritz on Piccadilly in London can be no less a celebration than an afternoon in Brunswick, Australia at Mary Eats Cake.

Sarah de Witt

That’s the view of proprietor Sarah de Witt, who invested in a chandelier of substance and fine china to rival the stylishly luxurious and expensive setting but makes her focus tea and comfort. The shop’s exposed brick, high-tin ceilings and wooden chairs and benches are highlighted with colorful cushions and fresh-cut flowers.

At Mary Eats Cake (a wink to Marie Antoinette’s famous expression) everything is fine-tuned to ensure customers feel special yet relaxed, have fun, and have a good time, says cofounder de Witt. Bridal showers, baby showers, a wedding dress fitting, these are special occasions “celebrations that enable people to feel connected over a memorable experience,” she says.

“I keep it simple,” says the 25-year-old entrepreneur. “We put customers first from the moment they come in and then wow them.” Almost a year ago, de Witt reopened after remodeling the storefront tea room on Sydney Road. The shop sits amid a dozen bridal and evening gown boutiques. She and her husband Ruan de Witt have earned a sterling reputation the past few years as custom blenders, wholesalers, caterers, and gifted teachers unusually tuned to the nuances of tea.

Sarah de Witt trains the staff to ensure they listen carefully and see to every need of patrons, who pay $45 per person for a selection of four sweets, four savories, and boutique teas. Seatings are two hours, so no one is rushed. De Witt prefers the term “high tea” to afternoon tea. Pastries are the work of French-trained pastry chef Jessica Hillbrick. The selection is superb and prepared fresh on site, and  everyone enjoys every bite.

Sarah is a tea educator who trained with Australian Tea Masters and as a perfume nose in Grasse, France. She works hard introducing new teas, explaining origin and preparation. Tea enhances your food experience, she says. “We walk our customers through a selection of five different teas, matched to the treats on the high tea platter,” she says.

De Witt samples continuously and with care. Reviews on Trip Advisor, Facebook, and Zomato speak to the friendly atmosphere and local sourcing. While tea is the focus, many are first lured to the shop by the morning smell of barista-made espresso from behind the counter. De Witt then suggests a hearty tea. “Breakfast blend remains a bestseller but a sip of coconut puer or cinnamon puer or a delicious green has convinced many to give tea a try,” she says. “I have the most fun converting coffee drinkers to tea drinkers!”

The shop seats 50 downstairs with room for another 50 in the upper dining room. Her customers consume about 8 kilos of tea per week, or 25 kilos a month. Breakfast tea is priced at $4.50 for one and $8 per pot for two, but can run to $11. The most expensive teas are $15 a pot. She keeps longer hours than most cafés, closing at 6 p.m. and opening at 10 a.m. on weekends.

Foot traffic is not heavy on the hilly streets. She has always promoted Mary Eats Cake as a destination and cleverly worked out numerous promotions with vendors in the neighborhood. Buying a wedding gown calls for a celebration as does a gathering of bridesmaids after a fitting. Social media is important but word of mouth accounts for most bookings.

Mary Eats Cake employs a staff of eight with four or five tending to clients and the kitchen. Weekends are busy (Saturday is reserved for High Tea showers) and the catering business is very strong, especially weekends. While High Tea is best catered for smaller gatherings and showers of occasion, Mary Eats Cake has recently ventured into bigger events such as engagement parties and weddings.

A selection of 24 Impala + Peacock organic loose leaf teas on sale in the shop are beautifully packaged and hand-blended in small batches. They are priced from $18 to $70. Sarah’s husband Ruan de Witt, 31, a South African, likes the symbolism: “The impala suggests the humble origins of the tea plant and the peacock embodies the sophisticated and ancient tea ceremonies that bring so much glamour and class to tea.”

558 Sydney Road
Brunswick, Australia
Monday–Friday 1–6 p.m. (closed Wednesday)
Saturday, Sunday 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
High Tea: Every day 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.