Tearoom Owners has created an informal forum for keeping the best of the old afternoon tearoom tradition and adapting it for a new business era. It grew out of a 2012 panel at the World Tea Expo and now numbers over 500 in its closed Facebook group, with membership limited to existing and “aspiring” owners of Victorian style tearooms. Annelise Pitt, the moderator, describes it as playing an important role for owners, who typically operate a single small establishment and are scattered across many locations, “to find their peers — to learn, to teach, to share.”
As tea expands its dimensions of flavors, products, customer preferences and outlets, it’s worth stressing that innovation doesn’t have to mean throwing out the old to be supplanted by the new, but refreshing it and building on its special heritage.
The Victorian tearoom is one example. It is emblematic of tea as a treat and a place for special events. Its appeal has rested on low key, refined ambience and careful, welcoming service. The great tea rooms created a unique and highly individual historical identity: Betty’s and Lyons Corner House in England, Glasgow’s Willow Room, Singapore’s Raffles and Atlanta’s Frances Virginia Tea Room. Every longtime tea lover has a warm recollection of a magical tearoom. The Victorian style embodies the spell. In the age of matcha everything, bubble tea anything and coffee bars everywhere, Tearoom Owners are among the most active in offering a smaller scale, localized someplace special here.
The Facebook group is private, but World Tea News has been given access to its active discussions. They show some interesting trends. The first is that the tearooms are moving away from tea bags as an accompaniment to their main attraction of light foods, such as finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries. Annelise Pitt summarizes the patterns: “Afternoon tearooms are, for the most part, no longer choosing the stereotype of lace and doilies, store-bought petits-fours, and tepid no-name bagged teas… they are striving for elegance and chef created delicacies… and properly brewed loose tea goes along with that.”
She adds that offering quality loose tea is raising the level of sophistication of tearooms and thus drawing in more customers. “Yes, there is lace, yes there are bone china teacups and sterling silver sugar tongs… But there is quality tea.” The Tearoom Owners definitely now see themselves as part of the loose leaf tea producing/retailing world.
Unlike the specialty tea equivalents, the afternoon tearoom customer is not an expert. “My customers get too overwhelmed with a huge list of teas…” There are two very divergent trends in this regard; some owners narrow down choices to around 12 teas while others offer 50 and even 100. In both instances, education seems a priority: via guidance (limited and selective) and exploration (wide variety).
A distinguishing feature of tearoom differentiation and branding is events: baby and bridal showers, Mothers’ Day and even a Football Widows’ Tea. These are core to the semi-formal elegance of a fine tearoom; these are not drop in equivalents of, say, Starbucks. The online discussions center on many operational issues of reservations, community outreach and publicity, deposits, and sourcing unusual supplies (such as “the elusive three-tiered tray.”) The tearooms do not have advantages of scale. There is not a single chain in the US or UK. The attraction of the tearoom is its intimacy and limited size – and hence revenues. Many tearooms are marginal in their profitability and financing. The upside is that there is a broad market where good tea plus great ambience plus a touch of elegance plus those fresh nibbles will linger long in your memory. And when you’re planning a special occasion, that tearoom will be high on your list.
Source: Annelise Pitt, TearoomOwners Facebook group.