Elizabeth Kleingartner admits she is living her dream life. As proprietress of Sumner, Washington’s The Secret Garden Tea Room & Gift Shop, and Secret Garden Tea Tours, she lives above her tearoom in her very own Victorian mansion with her husband and business partner, Mark. The irony in her success story is that she never dreamt of running a tearoom. Upon looking at the grand dame Victorian that now houses The Secret Garden Tea Room, one would never guess at this business’s improvised beginning.
Originally a gift shop owner, Elizabeth actually entered the tearoom business on a lark. When the space next to her mall gift shop became open in 2002, she decided to throw a tea party in it for Mother’s Day on a shoestring budget. She had always sold teacups in her shop, so she had those for the tea service. Next, she collected tables and chairs from Goodwill and roadside finds, and spray-painted everything white. She hung floral printed sheets and lace to conceal the slotted walls and proceeded to apply for her health permit. She expected that permitting her weekend event would cost around $100, and was shocked to learn that it would actually cost $700, and be good for three weeks. To make back her money, she decided to do another weekend of afternoon tea. When the tickets sold-out right away, she agreed to do one more weekend tea—it sold-out, too.
Since Mark and Elizabeth had a three-week permit anyway, they decided to offer lunches on the weekdays; so for three weeks, they had a tearoom in the mall. “Everyone said, you need to stay here. We need this full time,” recounted Elizabeth. At the time, the mall owner had hired a locally famous chef to consult with mall restaurants. He advised the couple on how to operate their ad hoc tearoom on a budget. They used tubs of ice for their cold-holding and streamlined their recipes to make things easier to prepare in larger quantity. Mark put up a wall around the counter in the former mom-and-pop coffee shop to create a separate kitchen area. And in October 2002, The Secret Garden Tea Room opened for business.
Three years later, business was booming, but the mall was in decline. Though the couple was ready for a change of scenery, they didn’t have time to go out looking for a new space. Two days after they mentioned this to a client’s husband who was a realtor, he came to them with pictures of a beautiful Victorian house 35 miles south. After major renovation of the house’s plumbing and electrical, they moved into the upstairs quarters and reopened The Secret Garden Tearoom in 2006. Elizabeth’s former gift shop partner came along too, moving into the servants’ quarters and working for the tearoom plating the afternoon tea tiers.
Elizabeth excused herself from the bustle of the tearoom to tell her story with Destination Tea (www.destinationtea.com), and to share what she has learned during eighteen years of tearoom ownership.
Destination Tea: How did the dream of running a tearoom differ from the reality?
Elizabeth: Actually, it was an unintentional thing. I did always know I wanted to have a retail store from a very young age. Back when I was in college, my idea of a party was a fancy dinner party and somebody did say, “you’re going to grow up to be a Betty Crocker rent-a-cook.” Sure enough, twenty-some years later I’ve got a restaurant. From my years running the gift shop, I knew what I was getting into. When you run a small business you work 24/7, you’re never truly off duty, even when you’re off work, you’re thinking of work. The part I don’t like that is different from the gift shop, is that with giftware the customer goes home and if something breaks they come back and return it. Here maybe one out of ten thousand customers is disgruntled and that’s the only thing I wasn’t expecting, the challenge of handling unhappy customers, in person and online.
Destination Tea: To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
Elizabeth: We strive to be the very best all the time. We go to tea all the time when we travel and if somebody’s got a great idea, we incorporate it into our offerings. That’s how you get better. We use good quality ingredients, we don’t settle for mediocre anything, and we’re all kind of foodies around here.
Another thing is adapting and adjusting our menu. In addition to our afternoon tea menus, we used to have a full lunch menu with quiches, six different salads and soups. We became so busy, we realized we didn’t need to offer all this and streamlined our lunch offering [more on this below]. It has not hurt our business at all.
Destination Tea: Over time, what adjustments have you made in your business that increased your profitability?
Elizabeth: My husband Mark who runs the kitchen would get up at five every morning and make three salad dressings, several quiches and had to have some of everything made, which would be a loss if customers didn’t order certain items. We realized that by streamlining our menu we could eliminate having to make a whole bunch of different recipes, cut down on waste and reduce our massive pantry shopping list too.
Now we use one recipe in multiple items. One of our plated lunches is Daffodil Dainty Tea — a pot of tea, scone with goodies, cup of the soup of the day, plate of tea sandwiches and one sweet treat. We are already making tea sandwiches for our tea menus, so we just double the quantity we prepare, as well as one sweet from the top-tier of the tea tray. For our Tulip Trio Tea, we serve a chicken salad on lettuce that is also the filler for one of our tea sandwiches, the frosty cranberry salad that we are famous for, and a third salad that is also part of our tea service.
We could never have done this when we first opened. We needed the full lunch menu at first to entice customers who had never been to a tearoom. They would come in for lunch and as they are eating their chicken sandwich, they’d see a tiered afternoon tea rack at somebody’s table and would want to try it. When we streamlined our menu, we spent the first six months educating our customers. “Now you know we don’t have the turkey sandwich anymore,” and some people got mad. We had to be full all the time before we could streamline.
We also noticed that on weekends we would be fully booked, but half of our customers were there for lunch, and we were having to turn away 50 afternoon tea reservations. We said let’s quit doing lunches on the weekends because the demand is there for afternoon tea, which has a higher price point, around $36. As a result, we became super busy during the week because all of our lunch customers were coming on weekdays, and we want to serve them as well. So we took the next step to offer the luncheon tea sets on weekdays, which are more affordable at $22.50, and streamlined our lunch menu for those on a budget.
In Washington state, our minimum wage just keeps going up. It just jumped up another $1.50 an hour, so it’s now $13.50 an hour for a non-skilled person with no job experience, and of course our managers and more experienced employees are paid more. To cover our payroll costs, we have tea sets that range from $12.50 to $54, and we remain busy. On the weekend, our afternoon tea service makes the money that keeps us open during the week.
We also close for a week at the end of October and deck out the house from head to toe. Every room is a different theme and we serve our Christmas tea from Thanksgiving until Christmas break is over. Though it is more expensive for us to close for a week and invest in decorating, we are full that entire holiday season. I estimate that we do more business in December than many tearooms do in a whole year.
Destination Tea: How/Why did you select your current tea providers?
Elizabeth: We order samples from various providers, and I keep a running list of our favorites, like Metropolitan’s raspberry tea, Adagio’s cream tea, etc. We have seven or eight suppliers and just found another new person at World Tea Expo last year. We buy some flavored teas but we also buy base blends and I order 40 or 50 natural botanicals to mix in. We invested in a fancy tea-bagging machine so we can blend our own teas and bag them in house.
Most of our teas we have had for years, but we also play around with stuff we have on hand. One of our popular new blends is Coconut Layer Cake which we make using black coconut flavored tea, toasted coconut flakes, dried lemon zest and black lemon tea. It tastes like cake with lemon curd filling. Sometimes we order in a product that doesn’t sell well and so we blend it into something more desirable. For example, we had orange zest tea that we doctored with vanilla flavored and cream flavored teas and called it Creamsicle. We did a Key Lime Pie with lime flavored tea and lemongrass. We ordered an Earl Grey and added cream tea and dried lavender to it and call it Lavender Lace.
Destination Tea: If your friend wanted to open a tearoom, and you were to say to her, “Learn from my mistakes…,” what advice would you give?
Elizabeth: It’s not all fun, it’s a job. You need to be prepared for people to not like you, and not like your food, and not like your place. It’s fun to throw a tea party for your friends, but when people are paying for it and you are getting up at five in the morning, only for people to make a complaint, you have to be resilient.
If you can own your building, avoid paying rent. In the entire fifteen years we were renting our space in the mall, we never made a profit, only broke even.
Don’t be a one-man show. You’ve got to have help or you will burn out really fast and you won’t be able to grow.
Adapt all the time to whatever the new thing is. Keep adjusting and don’t be so locked into, “well, this is what we’ve always done” and “people expect _________.”
Include retail in your tearoom. The gift business is fully 20%, and in fourth quarter, 25% of our sales. I’m thinking of organizing a trip, “Intro to the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market,” to help fellow tearoom owners navigate this bi-annual gift show and develop their selection and ordering processes.