Editor’s Note: Teahouses are the touchpoint for specialty teas. They are cornerstones of communities and special destinations. They are also labors of love with a big dose of hard work and tenacity mixed in. In her series, Angela Renals, explores these special places where “tea is served” and those special people who serve it up. At the time of this posting, most American Teahouses are closed due to covid-19. Please show your support for your local teahouse however you can. We look forward to their re-opening.
Contributed by Angela Renals of Destination Tea
When Claudia Zacharko set out to run a Mexican restaurant, she had no way of knowing that she would today be the 16-year owner of Canfield, Ohio tearoom Piccadilly Parlour Victorian Tearoom. The day Claudia first walked through the doors of Piccadilly Parlour, it was her first time visiting any tearoom. Destination Tea’s, Angela Renals, chatted with Claudia to learn about her calling to become a successful tearoom owner.
Owning a restaurant had always been Claudia’s dream. Claudia’s mother was known for her food, and for making plenty of it, in the Mexican tradition, and Claudia loved being in the kitchen. So it was natural that when her mother fell ill and Claudia wanted to help with medical bills, she began working as a server in one of her favorite restaurants. Thirteen years later, having become a restaurant manager, Claudia thought to herself, “If I’m putting in 60 to 70 hours a week at this job, I’m going to do this on my own.”
Claudia began searching for a Mexican restaurant for sale, purchasing Mexican pottery and other supplies, but she kept getting out-bid on locations. Then, her restaurant broker suggested they meet for lunch at Piccadilly Parlour, and Claudia, who had never had a cucumber tea sandwich in her life, “was floored.” Though she had already bought everything for her dream Mexican restaurant, she instantly fell in love with the tearoom. Claudia put in a bid and, within one week, it was hers.
Seeing that the former owners had had an excellent concept for ten years, she looked at how she could improve the tearoom bit by bit. In the same space that once housed six tables and a large gift shop area, Claudia now has 16 tables. Whereas the former tearoom hosted one event a weekend for up to 25 guests, Claudia can host three special occasions a weekend, seating up to 65 at a time. Canfield and the surrounding area are home to a big European community, so Claudia introduced “the big cookie table,” an expectation at special occasions. As a nod to her father’s Ukrainian heritage, she also added homemade pierogies to the menu.
Claudia decided to keep the tearoom’s original quarter-page menu and expand it. Wanting to learn more about tearoom foods, she poured over cookbooks and used ideas from friends and TeaTime Magazine. Experimentation and customer feedback are key to her menu development. She cultivated strong relationships with her team of servers, knowing it is the best way to find out about her clientele. She encourages the servers to tell her what the customers want, why they send something back, and if a menu item isn’t popular, she removes it. Claudia’s trial and error process has led to the development of a six-page trifold menu, now offered at her 26-year-old tearoom!
Destination Tea: How did the dream of running a tea room differ from reality?
Claudia: When the door closed to owning a Mexican restaurant, I honestly believe the timing was right. Coming from a Christian-based home, my mom would say, “If it’s not meant to be, wait.” The Mexican restaurant would have demanded huge hours, dealing with a crowd and the bar. In contrast, the tearoom felt peaceful, slowed me down. The setting was perfect.
Tea parties had been a tradition I shared with my father when I was a little girl. When I bought the tearoom, he had recently passed away from a massive heart attack. I felt that having the tearoom was my way of still having him as part of my future. Also, my mother was sick, and I was coordinating hospital visits with my siblings. So, the flexibility and hours of the tearoom worked out great. Had I purchased a restaurant with a bar license, I would have been working from 11:00 am to 2:00 am. Whereas, for the tearoom, I work from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. I was so lucky to have an awesome staff at the tearoom, so that if I had to take my mom to the hospital, I had someone to cover me.
The tearoom actually encouraged me to slow down in life and appreciate the time that I have. We don’t have a television. We don’t offer Wi-Fi to our guests. It’s time to spend with your friend, you’ve entered a very different world when you come into the tearoom.
Also, in a tearoom, you are reminded of what matters, after all the hard work — and it is hard work: you have to cut, make, bake. There’s a process behind making good food. There are times when I am so exhausted, and then someone will pull me aside in the dining room and say, “I just want to say thank you. Last time I was here, I was with a loved one that is no longer with me,” and there we go crying. I thank God for putting me on the right path. I did their baby shower, and now I am doing their child’s birthday party and celebrating their mom, who is 75. In this community, Piccadilly is part of their family life.
Destination Tea: To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
Claudia: You have to have a positive relationship with your clients. You never know who is walking through the door and what their situation is. I am a hugger, and I do love all my clients. I’ll tell them, “I’ve got something in the oven, but I can give you two minutes,” and I sit down with them. The elderly can feel forgotten, so when they come in, I tell my servers to love on them.
I also get people who like to sit by themselves, and I think that’s awesome, I welcome it. Piccadilly is a place to get away. People come because it’s quiet, and when you come in, it’s like, “Whoa, what did I just walk into?” You forget the stress, leave it outside, and it’s a moment to realize, “I needed this, it’s therapy, my mind needs a break.”
We know when our customers are having the “tea conversation’ and now is not the right time to interrupt them. I train my servers not to go checking on their tables all the time, just be alert of their needs, and quietly take care of them.
I thank God for the day and the customers, who are part of that spiritual relationship with God. I believe it’s our responsibility to take care of each other. You have a cold? Here’s some tea. You have to care about people.
Destination Tea: Over time, what adjustments have you made in your business that increased your profitability?
Claudia: You’ve got to be creative. Try it and if it doesn’t work, don’t regret it, because it’s still exposure.
Here in Ohio, during wintertime, you don’t know what to expect. This past winter was different, with a lot of bridal and baby showers, because typically weddings don’t happen during snow and winter storms.
We host special events, like Tea with Santa, and with the Elves. We do a Nutcracker Tea and Tea with the Easter Bunny.
I met a young lady who came into the tearoom and asked if it would be okay for a photographer to take pictures of her here. I want people to do that and share it on Facebook. It’s free media exposure. She comes back in to show me the photos, and she’s dressed as a princess. So we started doing princess teas, and we’ve had her at Piccadilly for two years.
Kids are a huge moneymaker. They’ve already done Chuck E. Cheese, bowling, swimming, sleepovers. They get into the stage, when they are around 4 to 10 years old, that they want to do a tea party. We make it fun and keep them busy. We may serve a kid’s menu, but we make it fancy.
We look at what Disney movie is coming out and cater to the kids. We love having kids. A lot of tearooms don’t welcome kids, but I invest in fascinators, hats, and get a lot of donations so that they can dress up. We have princess and bridesmaid dresses and jewelry for them. I know when to tell them to use their inside voices, and it is a great opportunity for parents to teach them manners and restaurant behavior.
For the menu, I know what my costs are. I go to the farmer’s market, and they’ll give me a great deal because I always go to them. I’ll buy half a bushel cheap, cut it up and freeze it. I’m going to pick a beautiful cucumber and make sure my produce looks great, and when I get a great batch of strawberries that we feature on the menu, I tell the servers to sell them. I’m big into taking care of local providers because they send people to us.
Over time, I learned that I need one day off. This year I started closing on Mondays. That’s going to be my day. Making a day off for me as an owner was hard, just to be able to take care of me. I think customers understand that. I need it so I can be better for them. It makes a big difference, so I can better serve you the other six days.
Destination Tea: How/Why did you select your current tea provider(s)?
Claudia: When I first bought the tearoom, Baltimore Coffee and Tea was their tea provider, as well as Jackson’s of Piccadilly, who discontinued their line. I continue to use Baltimore Coffee and Tea, but I also researched tea companies and called Harney & Sons, asking them to send me some samples. I sat down with my crew and said, “let’s have tea.” If I know the servers like it, I know they are going to sell it. They are my suggestive sellers.
I keep our tea selection constant for two years, and we go from there. I am always saying, “Let’s try this tea. What’s the new tea?” Harney & Sons are suggestive with me. They’ll send me new teas. I tell my servers, sell the teas you like, and I can tell through inventory what sells and doesn’t.
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?
Claudia: You have to love what you do. If you don’t like it, get out of it.
You have to take care of your servers. I don’t charge my servers to eat food; it might be because of how I was brought up. They’re my girls. They’re my daughters, and they are going to sell for you. People want to see me in the tearoom, but I’m usually back in the kitchen, and my servers represent me on the floor. If they’re not happy, they can’t be a success for you.
You have to have an awesome relationship with your staff. It’s hard to find good people. A lot of my hires are recommendations from my servers, because they already know what I expect. I’m nice, and I’m firm. I make the time for the interview. I’ll go to her former employers and ask if she was a team player. My girls know this. I tell them they were recommended, and we’ll try for a month. If you don’t like it, or I don’t think you’re appropriate, I’ll let you go.
I deal with a lot of college students, so if it’s slow, I tell them they can bring in their books and study. Everyone is off their cell phones when customers are in the parlor. I don’t have to hire often because they stay with me for a long time. I train them to be owners by giving them little jobs. I want them to build relationships, like with the bank teller. I tell them, you never know if that’s a professor sitting there or someone who could give you a job when you’re done working here.
Sell what you provide. Sell your customers’ favorite teas in tins. We also sell our baked goods in small quantities. I’d rather use space to put a table and seat customers than have something decorative.
If my friend were married and had children, I’d say, “don’t do it.” Running a tearoom takes a lot of your family time, though I think that’s in all businesses. She can do it as a woman, but she’s going to miss out on a lot. It depends on her support system. It depends on where you are in life.
Two years ago, I decided to shut down for a vacation for one week, and it was the best thing I did. I didn’t have to worry about things breaking or anything. I gave my body a rest, mentally shut it down.